Earlier in 2023, industry leaders formed the Workforce Action Alliance to alleviate the workforce shortage facing most clinical laboratories.
By Jennifer MacCormack, MLS(ASCP)cm
The laboratory workforce shortage is an increasingly urgent concern. As demand for diagnostic testing continues to rise, there is a considerable and growing gap between the number of skilled laboratory professionals available and the open positions that need to be filled. Lack of qualified personnel can lead to delays in critical healthcare services and strain the existing workforce, whose increased workloads can easily lead to burnout and the decision to leave the field. Many organizations and institutions have been making efforts to address the shortage and have made some progress, but the problem persists nationwide.
The Workforce Action Alliance
A passionate panel discussion about the workforce shortage at the 2022 COLA Laboratory Enrichment Forum in Charlotte, NC, inspired many prominent attendees to consider the potential for collaborative endeavors on a broad scale. The decision was made to convene key stakeholders at a high-level event to review existing initiatives and determine what might be reproduced, scaled, or customized for the benefit of other communities. In May of 2023, executives from various organizations representing employers, public health laboratories, laboratories that serve the military and our veterans, educators, regulators, high school counselors and specialists in recruitment and retention joined together at the first Workforce Action Alliance (WAA) in Fort Worth, hosted by COLA Inc. After a lengthy day of conversation and debate, WAA members decided to prioritize three important action items: gather meaningful data, standardize professional titles, and communicate career possibilities.
Gather Meaningful Data
If policymakers are to be persuaded to enact change, they must be presented with complete and accurate data about the current state of the clinical laboratory workforce and training pipeline. For example, the number of applicants to clinical laboratory science programs varies throughout the country: some regions are unable to fill their classes while others must turn applicants away. Furthermore, data must be collected about how many clinical training sites exist in each state and major metropolitan area, including their capacity and the specialties for which they can provide training. Understanding these differences can help focus important initiatives within specific states or regions where the need is greatest. Accurate data must also be collected and analyzed concerning the vacancy rates for different laboratory roles and whether the vacancies are concentrated in certain geographic areas or laboratory specialties.
Finally, all of this data must be evaluated to determine the number of laboratory professionals who are needed now to fill vacant positions and project how many will be needed in the future as the healthcare landscape changes.
Standardize Professional Titles
There is considerable variation in terms used to describe laboratory careers and laboratory professionals. Within the laboratory, one can find medical laboratory scientists (MLS), clinical laboratory scientists (CLS), medical technologists (MT) and medical laboratory technicians (MLT) sharing the same bench. This can be confusing to the public, to students, and to prospective employers. In addition, many laboratory professionals casually use the terms “med techs,” “lab techs,” or simply “techs,” which may undermine public understanding of the level of education, skill, and hands-on experience that is required to produce quality laboratory results and support patient care. Standardizing titles within the field may be a way to better highlight the inherent value of the laboratory profession and just how critical this scientific discipline is as a part of the health care team.
Communicate Career Possibilities
A strong case was made at the WAA meeting that the laboratory community must work harder to communicate the wide variety of current and future career paths available within the field of laboratory science. High school students have countless options open to them upon graduation, and they may be more likely to consider a degree in medical laboratory science if they can visualize their possible career paths within the field. Sharing more information about the variety of possibilities within laboratory science can also give people already working in the field a chance to grow as they work towards different roles within the profession. The hope is that sharing information about laboratory science careers with high school and college counselors, educators, and students will inspire more people to explore this important profession and lessen the workforce shortage.
Looking Forward to Solve the Workforce Shortage
With these important priorities established, WAA workgroups set out to determine specific action plans for each initiative and establish metrics for success. Each workgroup has met separately online as their projects progress, and the entire WAA team has also convened virtually to exchange status reports and ideas.
Members of the Workforce Action Alliance will be meeting in person again in May 2024, at the convention center in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to review the status of their current initiatives. At this meeting, which will be held immediately prior to COLA’s annual Laboratory Enrichment Forum, stakeholders will determine whether the work is complete on the initial action items or if more needs to be done and whether the alliance should shift their focus to other important priorities to further support the laboratory workforce.
The workforce shortage has no single cause. And because of this, there is no single, immediate solution to bolster the laboratory profession. By establishing clear priorities and setting out specific action plans at each annual summit, WAA workgroups are laying a strong foundation for tackling this complex issue in a comprehensive way. As they continue to strategize and collaborate, the laboratory profession stands to benefit from their commitment and insight, ensuring a stronger and more resilient future to serve the needs of patients and the entire community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jennifer MacCormack, MLS(ASCP)cm, is COLA’s technical writer, developing webinars, technical bulletins, and educational materials, as well as articles for external publication. Prior to joining COLA as a technical advisor, she had more than 15 years of experience as a medical laboratory scientist, working in hospital core laboratories and transfusion services in both the U.S and Canada. She also worked in development and manufacturing of blood typing antisera. Her work has been featured in several industry publications and science communication blogs.