Decline in COVID testing creates retraining opportunities for labs amid staffing shortages

March 27, 2023

With the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency finally set to expire May 11, it is safe to say the decline in the volume and frequency of COVID testing that labs have experienced over the past year will be the new normal for the foreseeable future. But despite this shift, clinical laboratories of all sizes and sub-specialties are still struggling with staffing issues as many of the lab professionals trained primarily for molecular COVID testing fail to meet employers’ qualifications and required experience for open positions. On the flip side of that coin, some potential candidates are holding out for ideal opportunities after realizing the leverage they hold due to the number of open positions.

“There's still a huge need for sub-specialties such as histotechnology, cytotechnology, toxicology, LC/MS, etc.,” says Maggie Morrissey, Director of Recruiting and Staffing for Lighthouse Lab Services, a North Carolina-based recruiting and consulting firm “Lighthouse has many people who are available to work, but most don't have any experience in those sub-specialties because of the recent focus on COVID.”

Given that reality, labs should explore meeting this problem head-on by considering candidates who may not meet their exact requirements, but who could be trained to fit an open role over a short period of time.

The current landscape

In early 2022, the overall testing landscape for U.S. labs was still being dominated by demand for molecular COVID testing. Much of this was due to the fact that at-home testing was not as prevalent during that time and most international travel still required a negative COVID test.

However, that changed around April of 2022 as the country made at-home tests more widely available and more scrutiny was placed on federal reimbursements for widespread surveillance testing. Fast forward to today, and even more labs built specifically for COVID testing are closing their doors or shutting down their molecular testing lines.

“Everything kind of slammed to a halt when it came to COVID testing,” Morrissey says. “Those labs stopped hiring and some couldn't make a transition into infectious disease for a lot of different reasons.”

But despite that initial shockwave from those closures, demand from labs for staffing assistance remains high. According to a 2022 wage and morale survey of medical lab professionals conducted by Lighthouse, 40% of more than 1,100 respondents indicated their lab was moderately understaffed, while another 33% described their lab as significantly understaffed. Just 27% of respondents felt their lab was adequately or well-staffed.

How labs could benefit from a fresh approach

Considering the disconnect between open positions and what labs are searching for in ideal candidates, there is ample opportunity for large and mid-sized labs to consider offering their own internal training to help elevate individuals who may be lacking experience in the specific specialties an employer may be seeking.

According to a report last year from Forbes on the shortage of medical technologists in the United States, there has been a 7% decrease in the total number of medical technologist and medical laboratory scientist training programs since 2000.1 While labs should not be solely responsible for solving that long-standing issue, Morrissey believes it is one they can help alleviate in the short term.

“Laboratories of the right size should take it upon themselves to train because many of the candidates they’re currently seeking are not just going to come out of the woodwork,” she says. “Recruiters are helpful, but we’re not wizards. We can only find candidates if there are candidates to be found for a particular location.”

Additionally, the push to find a perfect candidate who can immediately hit the ground running may actually cause the position to remain open longer as the search continues, impacting the morale of the remaining lab staff. Out of the 73% of our survey respondents who said their labs were understaffed, 44% described themselves as extremely or moderately unsatisfied in their role, while 24% stated their morale was neutral.

Candidates should also view the current hiring environment as an opportunity to advocate for themselves, even if they may not immediately seem like a perfect fit for an open lab role. Some large labs already have robust training programs in place, and candidates should use that knowledge to inquire about whether there may be a pathway to a new position available via temporary training.

Newer medical technologists who graduated during the pandemic should be especially open to this approach.

“If you reach out and a lab says they’d be open to training you, they may offer you a lower training salary until you complete their program or requirements to move into a new position,” Morrissey explains. “But in any situation like this, you’ll want to have signed agreements stating how long you’ll be training, your rate of pay during that time, and what your compensation will be elevated to upon completion.”

The role universities and community colleges can play

Immediate staffing fixes aside, Morrissey thinks the true solution to this problem can be addressed by community colleges and universities offering post-graduate training opportunities where individuals can learn the specifics of a specialty and increase their hiring chances in turn. While that may only involve a course or two each semester for someone who wants to simultaneously remain in the workforce, it would be a boon for the success of these programs and their graduates in the long run.

“Those opportunities just aren’t available right now,” Morrissey says. “There needs to be more of an effort for these programs to connect with local labs to offer internships or other opportunities to continue education.”

Getting to that point will require industrywide advocacy in addition to the support of existing industry groups. While many continue to do an admirable job advocating for legislative issues and laws impacting the profession, not enough attention has been paid to the ongoing staffing crisis, let alone tangible solutions.

“Of course, labs and individuals can advocate for themselves,” Morrissey says. “But we need to continue having industrywide discussions about how we can band together to solve this staffing crisis, similar to what happened with nursing 10–15 years ago. I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction on that front.”

Looking ahead

There remains a significant percentage of the clinical lab workforce that graduated during the height of the pandemic and has spent their career in the interim focused on COVID testing. Considering the staffing demands labs throughout the industry continue to face, it would be shortsighted to allow the skills of these individuals to atrophy to the point where they consider leaving the profession altogether.

While the long-term solution to this problem will require the combined efforts of educational program administrators, lab advocacy groups, and leaders from within the profession, labs can address hiring issues in the immediate future by considering more nontraditional candidates or those who may require some training in order to fulfill their open positions.


1.     Stone J. We’re facing A critical shortage of medical laboratory professionals. Forbes. Published April 28, 2022. Accessed February 17, 2023.