Of all the challenges that face our nation’s laboratories — implementation of the Affordable Care Act, an influx of millions of new patients into the healthcare system, the rise of healthcare delivery models such as Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs) and Patient-Centered Medical Homes (PCMH), a surge in new technologies and so-called “retail medicine,” and more — perhaps the most significant is the shortage of qualified workers.
While job growth in the lab sector is projected to rise about 16 percent between 2008 and 2018, there are more than 40,000 current lab vacancies in the U.S. and about half of clinical laboratories across the nation report difficulties in recruiting new staff.
Some 14,000 new lab professionals are needed annually, yet with many educational programs having been shuttered in recent years, remaining programs only produce about 5,000 graduates per year. By 2018, the crisis will escalate, as the number of clinical lab positions will increase by about 25,000 jobs due to the rapidly aging workforce. Baby boomers ages 50-59 make up more than 35 % of the lab workforce, the single biggest subgroup by age in the profession. Particularly, during the next five years, immunology, histology, and chemistry will be the departments most hard hit by retirements.
While the need for laboratory professionals is growing, so is the disillusionment within the existing workforce. Recent research by Advance for Administrators of the Laboratory suggests that many laboratorians would not recommend this profession to others as a career choice. These professionals are so disheartened by their career that they are losing sight of the true value and importance of the role they play in the healthcare system.
During a recent Leadership Summit, COLA brought together thought leaders from a variety of health care disciplines to collaborate on the future of laboratory medicine. The group concluded that there are many reasons for the growing lack of interest in lab medicine as a career. Lab services rarely are in the limelight like nurses and doctors. The off the grid nature of the laboratory and 24/7 nature of the laboratory also leads to many night, weekend and holiday hours, which today’s young professionals often eschew. Outdated educational requirements disqualify some otherwise competent candidates. And while the advance of technology will not negate the need for workers with the right skills, today’s training model is simply outdated. A new model is needed to meet evolving needs.
Comparatively low salaries are another dimension of the problem. In U.S. News and World Report’s Best Jobs 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median salary for clinical laboratory technicians was $37,970 in 2013. The best-paid 10 percent in the profession made approximately $58,910, while the bottom 10 percent made approximately $25,210. Bringing in an average salary of $40,240 in 2013, lab technicians earned less than pharmacists ($116,500), physical therapists ($82,180) and registered nurses ($68,910).
Education Holds the Key
As an organization that weaves education throughout all of its lab accreditation activities, we at COLA believe that a renewed, strengthened focus on laboratory education holds the key to solving the workforce shortage dilemma. To this end, COLA recently announced a $25,000 endowment to expand Columbia, Maryland-based Howard Community College’s newly created Medical Laboratory Technician program.
Initiatives like this represent a start, but all of us in the lab community need to continue to step up in order to achieve a significant turnaround in the current workforce trend. Hospital, research, and physician-owned laboratories, manufacturers of laboratory products, industry associations and other stakeholders must work hand in hand with local educators to help expand existing training programs and create and fund new ones. We must also team with legislators in Washington and across the nation to make more incentives and scholarship resources available for training lab workers.
At the same time, a sustainable recruitment model, which exposes science-minded students at young ages to a career in laboratory medicine, is essential to attracting the next generation of professionals to replace the graying workforce. Our “COLAcares” program is one such example. Designed to educate young people about the many job opportunities that exist in laboratory science careers, it consists of our employees conducting special “Give Back Day” presentations at area elementary, middle and high schools during Medical Laboratory Professionals Week.
The success of the program since its introduction in 2011 prompted COLA to expand the program to include additional presentations at schools; Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) expos and other venues; mentoring opportunities for interested students; and expanded scholarship support aid for students interested in medical laboratory careers. COLA offers a free “Give Back Day” kit to laboratories, youth non-profit groups, school districts, healthcare associations and others interested in creating similar programs. The kit can be downloaded at http://colacares.cola.org/how-to-kit/.
In our collective outreach efforts, we also should emphasize the fastest-growing, highest-paid areas of lab medicine and the education courses available to obtain these jobs. Leadership Summit participants also suggested teaming with the entertainment industry to better showcase labs in television and film programming, similar to the attention the forensic sciences have received in programs such as CSI.
It is time for all lab industry stakeholders to apply their energies, creativity, and problem-solving skills towards addressing this issue, which ultimately concerns us all, especially the patient community we serve. The good news is that we have a compelling story to tell. Lab workers have the potential to make a good living, especially as we work together to increase and streamline educational resources, while improving salaries. Perhaps most important, we need to emphasize the difference lab professionals make in the lives of others; lab testing has an estimated impact on over 70 percent of medical decisions. Laboratory professionals play a critically important role on allied health teams.
Originally published in Advance for Medical Laboratory Professionals April/May 2015 Issue “State of the Profession”