Pharmaceutical Industry Worker Career

Pharmaceutical industry workers are involved in many aspects of the development, manufacture, and distribu­tion of pharmaceutical products. Pharmaceutical operators work with machines that perform such functions as filling capsules and inspecting the quality and weight of tablets. Pharmaceutical supervisors and managers oversee research and development, production, and sales and promotion workers. Pharmaceutical sales representatives sell and dis­tribute pharmaceutical products and introduce new items to pharmacists, retail stores, and medical practitioners. There are approximately 291,000 workers employed in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States.

Pharmaceutical Industry Worker Career History

The oldest known written records relating to pharma­ceutical preparations come from the ancient Sumerians about 5,000 years ago. Other ancient cultures, such as the Indians and Chinese, used primitive pharmaceutical applications to eradicate evil spirits, which they believed to cause evil in the body. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Egyptians also compounded early pharma­ceuticals in hope that they would rid the body of dis­ease (which they believed was caused primarily by sinful thoughts and deeds).

Pharmaceutical Industry WorkerProfessions in pharmacy began to be established in the 17th century, after the first major list of drugs and their applications and preparations was compiled. The discoveries of the anesthetics morphine (first used in 1806), ether (1842), and cocaine (1860), were among the first pharmaceutical advancements to significantly benefit humankind. Since then, numerous vaccines have cured sickness and disease and have helped people live longer, healthier lives.

In 1852 in the United States, the American Pharma­ceutical Association (APA) was formed to help those in the pharmaceutical field organize their professional, political, and economic goals (the Pharmaceutical Manu­facturers Association replaced the APA in 1958). Govern­ment intervention in the pharmaceutical industry began in 1848, and in 1931 the Food and Drug Administration was formed to provide legal regulation and monitoring of the pharmaceutical industry. As the industry became increasingly regulated and organized, qualified workers were sought to professionally produce and package phar­maceutical products. These workers, known collectively as pharmaceutical industry workers, possess a variety of skills, responsibilities, and education levels and continue to actively work to improve the quality and length of our lives.

Pharmaceutical Industry Worker Job Description

The pharmaceutical, or simply, the drug industry, has four main divisions: research and development, produc­tion, administration, and sales.

Research and development professionals create new drug products and improve existing ones. For more information about research and development, see the chapters on Drug Developers, Pharmacists, Senior Care Pharmacists, and Pharmacologists. Products designed by the research and development professionals are manu­factured by production workers called, as a whole, phar­maceutical operators. Many of these employees work on production lines, tending equipment that measures, weighs, mixes, and granulates various chemical ingredi­ents and components, which are then manufactured into such forms as pills and capsules. Often these employees inspect the finished goods, looking for such inconsisten­cies as broken tablets and unfilled capsules.

There are a number of specific job designations in the realm of production.

Capsule filling machine operators run machines that fill gelatin capsules with medicine. They scoop empty capsules into a loading hopper and medicine into a filling hopper. After the filled and sealed capsules are ejected by the machinery, these operators inspect the capsules for proper filling and for evidence of breakage. They may also spot-check individual capsules or lots by comparing their weight with standardized figures on a weight specifica­tion sheet. This process is used for certain antihistamines, vitamins, and general pain relievers, for example.

Ampule and vial fillers work with glass tubes and plastic and glass containers with rubber stopules that are filled with medicine and then sealed. The process for filling is similar to that for the capsule filler; however, the operator must adjust gas flames to the appropriate temperature so that the tubes are completely sealed. They also count and pack readied ampules and vials for shipment. (Vials and syringes have recently become the primary containers for liquid drug production in the United States.)

Ampule and vial inspectors use magnifying glasses to check for cracks, leaks, and other damage. They keep records of inspected cartons, as well as damaged or flawed products.

Granulator machine operators operate mixing and milling machines that are equipped with fine blades that mix ingre­dients and then crush or mill them into powdered form so that they can be formed into tablets. They are respon­sible for weighing and measuring each batch, blending the ingredients with the use of machinery, and adding alcohol, gelatins, or starch pastes to help the pill keep its form. They then spread the mixture on trays that they place into an oven or steam dryer set at a predetermined temperature. At the conclusion of the heating process, they check each batch for dryness levels, size, weight, and texture.

Coaters operate machines that cover pills and tablets with coatings that flavor, color, or preserve the contents.

Fermenter operators oversee fermenting tanks and equip­ment, which produce antibiotics and other drugs. Opera­tors start the mixing tanks, add ingredients, such as salt, yeast, and sugar, and transfer the mixture to a fermenting tank when it is ready. They are responsible for monitoring the temperature in the tanks, for adding precise amounts of liquid antibiotic, water, and foam-preventive oil, and for measuring the amount of solution so that it may be trans­ferred to another tank for additional processing.

There are also a vast number of laborer professions involved in the production area of the pharmaceutical industry. Hand packers and packagers remove filled cartons from conveyor belts and transport other finished phar­maceutical products to and from shipping departments. Industrial machinery mechanics ensure that all machinery is working properly and at optimum production capacity.

The third major branch of this industry comprises administrative positions. Pro­duction managers direct work­ers in the manufacturing field by scheduling projects and deadlines. These employees also oversee fac­tory operations and enforce safety and health regulations, monitor efficiency, and plan work assign­ments. They also direct and sched­ule assignments for the shipping department, which packs and loads the pharmaceutical products for distribution.

The finished products are mar­keted by the sales branch. Service and sales representatives supply pharmaceutical drugs and related products to hospitals, independent medical practitioners, pharma­cists, and retail stores. Telephone calls and office visits allow the representatives to keep in contact with buyers, monitor supplies, and introduce new products. Often, reps supplement free samples of new products with printed litera­ture when available. Sales reps may choose to promote, for example, certain vitamins and other nutri­tional supplements, pain relievers, and general health care supplies. Jim Batastini works as a sales rep­resentative for the pharmaceutical industry; much of his work entails calling on physicians within a certain geographic area. “The purpose of my visits with these physicians,” he says, “is to provide the latest clinical information relevant to our products and how they can best be used to manage different disease states”

Pharmaceutical Industry Worker Career Requirements

High school

To prepare for a job in sales or administration, you should take courses in speech and English, to develop your com­munication skills. You should also take science courses, including biology and chemistry, so that you’ll have some insight into pharmaceutical research and development. If you’re interested in a job as a production worker, take courses in math and science. You should also take courses, such as vo-tech, that will give you some background in machine work and engineering.

Postsecondary education

Most employers offering production jobs require at least a high school diploma or the equivalent. Certain labor positions also require technical or vocational training.

Some pharmaceutical companies offer on-the-job training to nonprofessional workers. Employees in sales may be required to have sufficient training or a background in pharmacology as well as in sales and marketing, whereas certain administrative positions require course work in liberal arts, data processing, and business administration. Various types of pharmaceutical training are also available in the military. Information about pharmaceutical careers in the armed forces can be obtained by contacting your nearest military recruitment office.

Other requirements

Pharmaceutical industry workers must be alert, depend­able, and possess good communication skills, both oral and written. As workers interact with all divisions and levels of employees, strong communication skills pro­mote faster and more accurate production. Production workers must be physically fit, mentally alert to oversee production lines and processes, and have the tempera­ment to work at sometimes repetitive tasks. Administra­tive and managerial workers must be decisive leaders with empathy for workers at all levels of education and responsibility. Sales and marketing workers need good people and persuasive skills in order to effectively pro­mote products. “You should have the ability to learn a large volume of technical material,” Jim Batastini says, “and have the ability to assimilate the information and concisely communicate it to medical professionals.”

Exploring Pharmaceutical Industry Worker Career

If your high school has a vocational training program, look into taking a class that prepares you for produc­tion work; a local community college may also have such a course. You should consider contacting trade orga­nizations such as the American Foundation for Phar­maceutical Education, whose objective is to improve pharmaceutical education programs and student per­formance. In addition, science-related clubs and social organizations often schedule meetings and professional lectures and offer career guidance as well.

To prepare for a sales career, you might be able to find part-time work in a pharmacy. Working for a phar­macy, you can learn about the drug manufacturers, the most-prescribed drugs, and other information about the industry. You may also meet sales representatives, and have the opportunity to read the promotional materials distributed by drug companies.


Production workers and sales representatives work for pharmaceutical companies that manufacture prescrip­tion and over-the-counter products. These companies include Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Bristol-Myers Squibb. A small percentage of industry workers are employed with companies that make the biological prod­ucts that are used by manufacturers in the production of drugs. Approximately 291,000 workers are employed in the pharmaceutical industry in the United States.

Starting Out

College-trained applicants often benefit from placement services provided by the student services division of their schools. Applicants can also apply directly to phar­maceutical companies or through school contacts with professional organizations. In addition, newspapers and professional trade publications list job opportunities that are offered in each division and level of the industry.

“If you’re interested in pharmaceutical sales,” Jim Batastini says, “a strong science background with good academic standing will probably be required in the future. And networking with people in the industry is a great way to get your foot in the door.”


There are many advancement opportunities for phar­maceutical industry workers. Production workers may advance to managerial positions and learn how to oper­ate more sophisticated machinery. Laboratory assistants and research assistants may prepare for advance­ment with additional education and be promoted to new research projects and duties. Administrators may become supervisors, executives, sales managers, or mar­keting executives.

There are always possibilities for advancement for employees who are willing to develop new skills and take on more responsibilities. Many positions, however, require additional, formal training. “The industry main­tains a high level of continuing education requirements,” Jim Batastini says.


Because the pharmaceutical industry is a large field, earnings vary tremendously and depend on the worker’s position, educational background, and amount of work experience. However, some generalizations can be made about certain wages.

According to the Career Guide to Industries published by the U.S. Department of Labor, production workers in drug manufacturing averaged approximately $892 per week in 2004 (or $46,384 annually), though the wage range for these employees is broad, depending on the size of the firm, the shift to which the worker is assigned, years at the company, and the geographic location of the plant. Overtime compensation is usually equal to time and a half or double time. Career Guide to Industries also reports the following median hourly earnings for pharmaceutical industry workers in 2004: supervisors/ managers of production and operating workers, $25.46; chemical equipment operators and tenders, $15.80; inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers, $15.08; mixing and blending machine setters, operators, and tenders, $14.14; and packaging and filling machine operators and tenders, $12.89.

Pharmaceutical sales workers earn between $26,811 and $115,430 a year, depending on the position.

All full-time workers, regardless of their work specialty, receive paid vacations, medical and dental insurance, paid sick and personal days, pension plans, and life insurance. Some workers may also be offered profit-sharing, savings plans, and reimbursement for job-related education.

Work Environment

Production workers average 45-hour workweeks and eight hours per shift; at some pharmaceutical firms, however, shifts may run round the clock, meaning that some employees work a variety of shifts. Produc­tion workers often work in chemicals factories, which are well ventilated and offer good lighting but may be noisy and crowded. These workers may have to package products and load them onto trucks or docks by hand or with forklifts. Machinery operators may stand much of their shift. Laborers and packagers frequently walk, stand, bend, and lift in the course of their day. They may be required to operate machinery to lift heavy or bulky material. Ampule and vial fillers wear special clothing, such as complete face and body coverings, to maintain sterile conditions. Safety equipment is required for haz­ardous tasks of all types.

Administrators work in office environments that are often modern, neat, and have good lighting and ample workspaces. They often bring work home with them or have late meetings with other staff members.

Advertising and sales workers travel considerable dis­tances to hospitals, pharmacies, and physicians’ offices. They may go to other cities or even other countries to promote their product line. Jim Batastini says the work sometimes requires 80 hours per week. “But it’s an ever evolving field,” he says, “so you never get bored with the subject matter.”

Pharmaceutical Industry Worker Career Outlook

As the number of people age 65 and over continues to increase, the pharmaceutical industry is expected to grow to accommodate medical needs. In addition, technological developments continue to be pursued in many scientific endeavors, including the creation of new drugs for the treatment of such widespread diseases as AIDS and cancer. The overall employment outlook for workers in the phar­maceutical industry is thus considered very good and is anticipated to continue growing at a strong pace through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Many pharmaceutical manufacturing companies are investigating growth in health-related areas, such as cos­metics, veterinary products, agricultural chemicals, and medicinals and botanicals.

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