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Laboratory Technologists are in Demand

As many laboratory technologists retire, there may not be enough skilled workers to replace them. The future looks good for young people entering the profession.

"The picture in...medical labs is very concerning," says Kurtis Davis, executive director of a medical laboratory science society. "If I was a sailor and this shortage was a thunderhead, I'd be heading for shore right away."

Medical lab technologists perform tests in medical labs. They help diagnose and treat diseases. This can include chemically analyzing bodily fluids or studying tissue sections and blood cells looking for bacteria. They also test blood for glucose and cholesterol levels and match blood samples by types for transfusions.

Typically, medical laboratory technologists specialize in a certain area. For example, those who identify bacteria are called microbiology technologists. Immunology technologists look at ways in which the human immune system responds to various foreign bodies.

Cytotechnologists prepare slides of body cells and check them for early signs of cancer. And histotechnologists test blood and cut and stain tissue specimens.

There are a number of reasons for the shortage of workers. Davis says foreign technologists flocked to North America for jobs in the 1960s. "A lot of them are now eligible for retirement. That's left a real urgent concern that there's going to be a massive shortage."

American laboratory technologists usually require a bachelor's degree with a major in medical technology or in one of the life sciences. It's also possible to satisfy the requirements through a combination of specialized training and on-the-job training.

A Canadian medical lab technologist learns a range of different fields. An American medical lab technologist specializes in just one.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each, says Shea Merrill, coordinator of the Medical Institute of Minnesota's histotechnology program. "I'm not so certain the whole approach makes much difference," she says.

Merrill foresees a labor shortage in the U.S., though it doesn't seem to be as bad as in Canada. "As we get older and live longer, we're also going to need health-care professionals," she says, a boomer herself.

She adds another theory about the shortage: "Because of things like AIDS and hepatitis, I think a lot of people are hesitant to work with blood."

Merrill says she doesn't think people are as proud as they once were to call themselves medical laboratory technologists, though she does think that's changing. "They're just jobs now. It's not as attractive a profession as it once was," she explains.

That might have something to do with changes in health care. In the U.S., where mergers of private hospitals have been the norm since the late '80s, jobs have been lost left and right.

"We've undergone cuts to the bare bone," Merrill says with a sigh. "We overcompensated in one direction. Now we'll need more people."

"Technology so far," Merrill says, "has only enhanced our field. It has only made our workplace more efficient. It has really been our friend. Machines really make our work much easier and you need people to operate these machines."

"With a reduction in human resources, many places have resorted to using machines. But having qualified people to operate them is the key to success," Davis says.

"As far as technology replacing technologists goes, that's already happened," he adds.

In the early '90s, many medical laboratory technologists graduated and found there was no work available for them. That started a vicious downward spiral.

"The problem with our industry is that if you don't get into it right after you graduate, you're kind of in trouble. Technology changes quickly and if you're not in a lab keeping abreast of new developments, people get lost," he explains.

Davis says he feels sorry for people who graduated in the early '90s, but he insists things are turning around.

"Looking at the growth in the industry and keeping in mind that the previous cycle of growth was about 15 years, I'm guessing you're going to see this demand last until the year 2020," he says. "After all, we're missing a generation in our industry. The hole is going to be incredible."


National Society for Histotechnology
A source of info for a specialized area of medical laboratory technology

American Medical Technologists
Certifies lab technologists in the U.S.

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