Feature Story | 7-Dec-2023

University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati Public Schools partner to train high school students for pharmacy technician certification

Hands-on learning energizes students, prepares them for employment

University of Cincinnati

A partnership between the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) is helping high school students earn class credit, and a potential paycheck, through pharmacy technician training.

Major pharmacy chains including CVS and Walmart have scaled back or shifted their pharmacy hours in the past year due to staffing issues, and a 2022 National Community Pharmacists Association survey found 70% of pharmacies were struggling to fill staff positions, particularly for technician roles.

Sarah Woodward, a teacher at CPS’ Woodward Career Technical High School, said the pharmacy tech program began six years ago as a way for students to earn a workforce credential, which is one of the requirements students can achieve toward earning an Ohio high school diploma. 

The students complete online training in preparation for the pharmacy technician certification exam in March, but Woodward said the modules can become monotonous and boring. To receive more hands-on training, the students come to UC’s James L. Winkle College of Pharmacy.

Experiential learning

On a Wednesday morning in November, students from Woodward and Shroder High School rushed around the college’s skills lab, working to determine the brand name, generic name and disease applications for nine bottles of medication in front of them. Across the hall, students geared up in lab coats, masks, hair coverings and gloves as they learned how to work in a sterile environment.

“We like doing the work and engaging in everything they teach us, and we learn it quick and fast,” said Woodward student Lontez Black. “Being part of this is fun. We are engaging more. We are hands-on students, so we love doing this stuff. It’s great to come here.”  

“It can be challenging trying to learn the different medicines and keep up, but I think it’s been a pretty cool experience,” added Shroder student Desean Richard. “Probably the most fun thing I like about it is being able to get outside of school and actually come to UC and go in depth with different things.”

UC’s Michael Hegener said the visits to the college have also included activities teaching students about compounding medications, legal requirements when working in a pharmacy and how to make suspensions, creams and ointments. 

“Dr. Hegener has been fantastic at finding ways to keep the kids motivated and encouraged and excited about doing it, because the online learning is really dull,” Woodward said. “So he has created some fun ways to keep the kids engaged and motivated to keep pushing forward.”

The partnership provides an early exposure both to potential careers in pharmacy and to what college is like, Hegener said.

“Not only do they come and do these activities, but they also came and sat through an actual course at the college,” said Hegener, a doctor of pharmacy, director of the Wuest Family Pharmacy Practice Skills Center and associate professor of pharmacy. “I think it’s great these students get to see what the college life is like early, get a feel for pharmacy and see the College of Pharmacy here, and hopefully down the road they’ll think about pharmacy as a career.”

Shroder teacher Gloria Ononye said students return to the classroom energized after visits to UC, and interest in the program is growing.

“At my school now, a lot more students in their junior year are saying that they want to be in pharmacy, and I think it’s because of the experience the current students are sharing with their peers,” Ononye said.

Career development

The students will have a chance to continue their hands-on learning in actual working pharmacies due to the state approving a waiver for the program. Typically, pharmacy technician trainees must be at least 18 and high school graduates to train in pharmacies, but students in the program can begin working as a trainee at 17 and while still in high school.

“The goal here is these students have said they want to work after leaving school, and so we’re trying to get them not only working as a pharmacy technician, but working as a certified pharmacy technician at a higher salary and with more responsibility,” said Patricia Achoe, director of Equity and Inclusion at the College of Pharmacy.

Ononye said two Shroder students have already begun working as trainees at a pharmacy, which will provide them an additional leg up when it comes time to take the technician certification exam, in addition to a paycheck.

Students Black and Richard said they are both planning to work in a pharmacy in the spring to continue their training. 

“I think it’s helping me while growing up,” Black said of the program. “Since I’m doing hands-on work now, when I get to work in a pharmacy it will be easier. It will be like second nature working there.”

While they are not sure if they want to pursue pharmacy as a permanent career, both students said earning the pharmacy technician certification will be beneficial now and in the future.

“I think it gives you a step ahead. Instead of just going to work at a restaurant or something, you can get a step into the real world through joining a real field,” said Richard. “There are other things I would be interested in for a career, but pharmacy will always be something I can come back to because I’m going to work for the diploma.”

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