More than 4.25 billion retail prescriptions will be filled in the U.S. this year. That's 11.6 million a day. 8,000 a minute. The demand for prescription drugs is only going to continue growing as our population ages. Plus, more and more conditions are becoming chronic. That's why the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 12% growth in jobs for pharmacy technicians in upcoming years. These jobs can be found virtually everywhere in the country, and they're unlikely to go away. That makes them an attractive option for anyone who is looking for portability and job security in a career. But what does a pharmacy tech do, and how do you become one?
What is a Pharmacy Technician?
Pharmacy techs work under the direct supervision of a pharmacist. The techs do the bulk of routine patient interaction, prescription-filling, and daily operations. This includes duties like:
- Measuring, mixing, compounding, packaging, and labeling medication
- Taking prescriptions, insurance information, and payment from customers
- Processing insurance claims, taking inventory, and more
In a hospital setting, they also prepare intravenous medications and deliver meds to patients' rooms. A little more than half of pharmacy techs are employed by drug stores, and 16% work in hospitals. The rest are employed by grocery or big-box stores. The national average salary for a pharmacy tech in 2019 is $34,475. Hospital-based pharmacy techs make the most money—$6,000-7,000 more per year than techs in retail.
How to Become a Pharmacy Technician
The path to becoming a pharmacy technician depends on where you live and whether becoming a tech is the end goal or just a step on your way to becoming a pharmacist. But generally speaking, there are five decisions or steps you will need to consider.
Step 1: Check State Law
Requirements for becoming a pharmacy technician vary from state to state. Some states require certification. Some just require registration. Others don't require either, which means you can just look for a job and start gaining experience. Employers do prefer trained or certified pharmacy techs, so a certificate or degree program may be worthwhile even where it's not state law. And if you move a lot, like a military spouse, the right program will set you up to be eligible no matter where life takes you next.
Step 2: Choose an Associate Degree or Certificate Program
There are two educational tracks you can choose from. You can get a two-year associate degree, or you can pursue a more focused curriculum in a certificate program. An associate degree is worthwhile if you know that becoming a pharmacy technician is just a step along your career path. It's a full academic degree, so you'll be able to apply your credits towards a four-year bachelor's degree later. But it's also more expensive, and you'll spend time taking general education requirements that won't apply directly to your job. A certificate program typically won't count toward any future degrees, but it will get you to work faster and cheaper. Certificate programs generally take one year and run between $1,500 and $5,000. However, our pharmacy tech certificate program has the additional benefit of counting your hours toward an associate degree at National American University. In most cases, an associate degree generally takes two years and averages between $8,000 and $25,000.
Step 3: Complete Coursework
A certificate program will focus on narrower job-critical topics like:
- Duties and the Role of a Pharmacy Technician
- Governance of Controlled Substances
- Related Laws and Regulations
- Drug Classification
- Frequently Prescribed Medications
- Characteristics of a Prescription
- Preparing and Dispensing Prescriptions
- Pharmaceutical Calculations
- Aseptic Techniques, Unit Dose, and Repackaging
Associate degree coursework is broader. You might take courses like Pharmacotherapeutics, Chemistry, Psychology, Nutrition, Diseases of the Human Body, and Health Care Law & Ethics.
Step 4: Complete an Externship
Most programs of either type will help you with externship placement as part of your degree. This is an opportunity to gain real-world job experience in a local pharmacy. Typically, the duration of an externship is 120-180 hours, which is 3-4 workweeks. Externships are unpaid because you're shadowing an employee or working under close supervision. They can, however, lead directly to job opportunities if you perform well. Many pharmacies look at externships as extended job interviews.
Step 5: Get Certified
In most states, you don't have to become a Certified Pharmacy Technician (CPhT). But you will earn more money with certification than without. Two separate organizations offer a path for earning your CPhT designation.
Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB)
PTCB's certification is the most widely recognized. If your state requires certification, it's probably through the PTCB. Their exam is called the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam® (PTCE®). To become a PTCB CPhT, you need to complete:
- High school diploma, or equivalent
- Full disclosure of criminal and State Board of Pharmacy registration or licensure actions
- Compliance with all applicable PTCB certification policies
- Passing score on the PTCE®
You don't see an associate degree or certification program on that list because technically, the PTCB doesn't require it. But their exam has a 57% pass rate, so you need all the study help you can get. The exam itself is a computer-based, two-hour, multiple-choice exam. You can learn more about it at the PTCB website.
National Healthcareer Association (NHA)
The NHA offers its own national certification. Their exam is called the Exam for Certification of Pharmacy Technicians (ExCPT). To become an NHA CPhT, you need to complete:
- High school diploma, or equivalent (or be less than 30 days from successful completion)
- Training program OR relevant work experience, including:
- An accredited or state-recognized pharmacy technician training program
- An employer-based training program that meets certain requirements
- Formal medical services pharmacy-related training offered by any branch of the U.S. Military with in the last 5 years
- 1200 hours of supervised pharmacy-related work experience completed within any one year of the past three years.
- Confirmation of your compliance with the ExCPT Code of Conduct
- Passing score on the ExCPT
Their exam is also computer-based, multiple-choice, and two hours long.
Both organizations require you to renew your certification every two years with 20 hours of Continuing Education (CE). One hour of your CE must be in patient safety, and one must be in pharmacy law.
You can take all the coursework you need to become a Pharmacy Technician online. That will let you work at your own pace, avoid a commute, and schedule your coursework around your current responsibilities. Our Pharmacy Tech program involves externship assistance plus a voucher for the ExCPT exam fee. The course will also prepare you for the PTCE® if you decide to take that instead. And if you're a military spouse, our course is 100% eligible for MyCAA scholarship funding!