Training tomorrow's lab techs challenges today's shrinking faculty

April 1, 2010

debate over
whether there will be enough qualified medical laboratory technicians
(MLT) to staff the nation's hospitals and commercial labs has cooled
somewhat in light of budget cuts resulting from the current Great
Recession. But the argument still rages over whether there will be
enough qualified instructors and professors to keep the educational
programs offered by community colleges and universities alive and
viable. With a growing number of faculty nearing retirement age, will
there be enough experienced MLTs and medical technologists (MT) to take
their place? Veterans in the field point out that while television shows
like “Bones,” “NCIS.” and the “CSI” franchise spark students' interest
through their glorification of lab work, they also wonder what practical
solutions exist for current college administrators and association
executives to recruit educators?

Identifying the roadblocks

Passiment, executive vice president of the American Society for Clinical
Laboratory Science, acknowledges that the major challenge — at least
where MLT programs are concerned — is faculty recruitment.
“Historically, the group that is most qualified is ready to retire,” she
says. The majority of those who would make the best candidates in the
classroom are between 25 and 32 years of age. “They are too
inexperienced,” Passiment states. “They are still getting their clinical

Being an educator means having less free time, she
explains. Aside from the hours spent in the classroom, there are also the
hours spent preparing lectures, grading papers, and counseling students.
“The job requires much more than working in a lab situation.” she says.

Sharon Miller, professor emerita at Northern Illinois
University (NIU) in DeKalb, IL, retired in 2002. She says recruiting new
faculty members on the university level where graduating MTs earn a
bachelor's degree has become extremely difficult. Besides the typical
classroom work, educators also are saddled with additional administrative
duties such as sitting on academic committees. There is the added pressure
to publish as the educator works toward tenure. “One of the advantages of
making full professor is that there is less pressure to 'publish or
perish,'” Miller says. “And as senior faculty move up, their teaching load
is reduced so junior faculty members are the ones teaching the lab courses.”

The largest pool of potential faculty
candidates may be the students themselves.

Universities also have begun to raise their hiring
standards, says Miller. “Many faculty were hired with a master's degree.
Now, hiring is on the more traditional model for academics with a PhD
required or one in the works.” Passiment agrees that universities are
changing their hiring practices, but she says the required PhD can be in
almost any allied field such as clinical chemistry, pathology, or even

Moving up the ladder

Ideally, faculty members have practical
experience in the field. But most MLTs and MTs who have already
established careers in hospital or commercial labs are staying put, says
Wendy Miller, associate dean for Health Professions at Elgin Community
College in Elgin, IL. And given the current state of the economy, many
laboratorians in hospitals are working past the typical retirement age,
she says.

The question of pay, both at the community college
level and even in hospital labs, has become a thorny issue. “MLTs and MTs
can make more as a practitioner than as an instructor,” says Jeanne Isabel,
program director and associate professor in Clinical Laboratory Sciences at

With more labs hiring lab techs with bachelor's
degrees, there is less incentive for a student to pursue only an associate's
degree or for an instructor to teach at a community college. But Wendy
Miller says, “We are the workhorses in the lab. Graduates of community
colleges do the day-to-day testing.”

Still, Passiment says her research shows that more
students are going on to earn a bachelor's degree. “There are a fair number
of folks who are getting their MLT certification, working for a while, and
then going for a four-year degree.” Sharon Miller agrees. “If they want a
supervisory position or more money, they need the bachelor's degree,” she

And the difference in pay between the two degrees can
be substantial, says Wendy Miller. Typical starting pay for an MLT with an
associate's degree is between $17 and $19 an hour. For MTs with a bachelor's
degree, it is between $23 and $25 per hour. When potential MLT and MT
students compare that with a nurse's starting salary, the gap is even wider.
The typical starting salary for a nurse who has earned an associate's degree
and passed the certification exam is between $23 and $25 per hour, she says.

Beating the overwhelming odds

Wendy Miller
notes that many hospitals — faced with overwhelming deficits — are
cutting lab staff, which not only is resulting in fewer openings for
graduates but also in fewer opportunities for students to fulfill their
practical in-lab training. This is having a ripple effect in that
schools are beginning to limit their MLT and MT program enrollments, she

If today's students are to become tomorrow's faculty,
then a concerted effort must be made now. The largest pool of potential
faculty candidates may be the students themselves. But so far, recruiting
efforts have not been very successful.

Ahn Strow, MLT/CLT program director at Illinois
Central College in East Peoria, IL, also has seen a change in student
demographics. “I see the surge in student numbers this year because of the
economy,” she says. “Students are older — in their 30s or 40s, — looking to
change jobs or retrain after losing a job.”

Many applicants, however, do not meet the
requirements for admission. Strow says the attrition rate among students
also has been high. “Usually it is 25% to 30%. This year, it is 40%.”

Isabel says, “Maybe our goal should be to try to
mentor individuals who have a knack for teaching. I think it is going to get
harder and harder to fill faculty openings if we do not start grooming
potential faculty members.”

Strow agrees, but adds a caveat. “You have to have
the passion to teach,” she says.

Richard R. Rogoski is a freelance journalist based in
Durham, NC. Contact him at [email protected].

Despite laboratories' investments in
state-of-the-art instrumentation and high-caliber testing personnel, it
takes a solid staff of dedicated phlebotomists to draw, transport, and
process samples so they accurately reflect the patients' physiology.
Let's give a “standing-O” to all those who dedicate themselves to proper
phlebotomy technique, world-class customer service, and the prevention
of preanalytical errors that can alter test results. Have you hugged
your phlebotomist today?

—Dennis J. Ernst, MT(ASCP),
Center for Phlebotomy Education,
Corydon, IN