What U of Utah Health did to tackle the tech shortage

At the beginning of 2022, the University of Utah Health had around 40 to 50 openings for technicians among its 17 retail pharmacies and five hospitals. That was too many, and the health system needed to fill the pipeline quickly.

Utah's unemployment has hovered around 2.5% in the last five years, limiting the pool of potential candidates for any job, let alone a skilled technician.

What could be done?

Kavish Choudhary, PharmD, chief pharmacy officer at the Salt Lake City-based health system, and his team knew something had to change.

The health system had relationships with community colleagues, two local high schools and an online program to train medical and pharmacy techs. But that wasn't enough. Then, a colleague from the Utah Refugee Center reached out with an idea for the refugees arriving in Salt Lake City, which is a sanctuary city. He told Dr. Choudhary the refugee program had several people who wanted to work and could train online as techs, but couldn't pay for their education.

"We saw some decreasing enrollment in the online program and we thought, what if we remove the barriers to the cost of the education? So we initially started with the idea of partnering with the refugee center but pulling down all the barriers so anybody that wanted to become a pharmacy technician, we'll pay for," said Dr. Choudhary.

The health system set aside "a couple hundred thousand dollars" for the first year of the program to fund 80 to 85 scholarships for people who wanted to become technicians. The scholarships were awarded with no strings attached; the program's participants did not need to stay with the system or pay back any of the funds.

The program has been a success. It has 119 students enrolled and about 50 are working at the University of Utah Health. There are around 60 program members working elsewhere in the region and 12 have graduated and are now full pharmacy technicians.

"It's been a great way for us to solve our workforce shortage with the technician piece," said Dr. Choudhary.

Many of the 50 members of the program working at University of Utah Health are students, so working as techs gives them extra cash while they are in school and many qualify for tuition benefits as employees.

"A lot of students are capitalizing on that," said Dr. Choudhary. "About a third of our technician and training pool is students, another third are folks exploring a second career or a different career and this is a way to get it done because it's paid for, and the last third are folks that are new Americans or refugees."

But students in the program don't have to stop there. Dr. Choudhary emphasized with new techs the variety of opportunities they will have to build great careers in healthcare. The health system has a robust career pathway to advance as a technician. About 70 of the last 100 techs that left the university went on to pharmacy school, while another 12 went to medical school and a few went to law school or other programs.

"That's been a huge marketing component for us as we talk to folks that are enrolled in college today about working in our department. You're going to learn how to work really hard, you're going to learn some really cool things, you're going to learn how to work as a team and work in an interdisciplinary environment and it'll set you up well for future success," said Dr. Choudhary.

The system's tech turnover went from around 20% to less than 10% after removing cost barriers, and the workforce has stabilized.

"For us, the proof is in the numbers," said Dr. Choudhary, who has had the chance to connect with many of the program participants on a personal level.

"They're really awesome people and for me, it's really fulfilling to hear their stories and the impact they've had on our institution as well as the impact we've had on them," he said.

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