By Nicholas Borgert

The second week of April is designated as National Medical Laboratory Week. It’s dedicated to increasing awareness of the contributions clinical laboratory professionals make within our health care system. And, it is the time to honor our hidden heroes: the 265,000 medical laboratory professionals and 14,000 board certified pathologists who protect and save lives each day by performing and interpreting clinical laboratory tests. On April 20 – 26, their dedication and expertise will be brought out from behind the walls of the lab and into the spotlight with the theme, “Laboratory Professionals: Exceptional People, Exceptional Work.”

 Career recruitment tools include beginning to target students earlier.

Look for public relations manuals, posters and recruitment materials to filter down from national organizations to state coordinators, to be distributed by local coordinators. Demonstrations, open houses and media appearances should be numerous, and aimed especially at attracting new people into the field. But the task of the campaign is enormous.

More automation isn’t enough to overcome labor shortages among those trained and qualified to operate this country’s 172,000 CLIA-registered laboratories.

According to one recent survey, the country needs an estimated 9,300 new laboratory professionals entering the system each year, but is attracting fewer than half that number. This at a time when the front edge of an aging Baby Boomer population is depending on advanced diagnostic services to help them live longer, healthier lives.

Still, working in a clinical lab continues to gather high scores in the media. The Jobs Rated Almanac (Sixth Edition) written by Les Krantz, rated 250 different jobs based on salary, physical demands, work environment, stress levels, security and future. The publication ranked MLTs (medical laboratory technicians) among the top 10 percent (25th) and medical technologists (MTs) nearly as high at No. 36. Krantz projected a 90 percent income growth potential for MTs.

“Workers and new laboratories are always in demand,” Krantz said. “Workers with extensive experience with computerized lab equipment will have the best prospects for continuing employment.”

Yet manpower shortages are continuing unabated, according to Robert Neri, executive vice president of the Clinical Laboratory Management Association (CLMA). Especially hard hit are MT and MLT positions.

“Shortages continue to impact a lab’s ability to get the work out,” he said. “Most laboratorians are dedicated people who are trying desperately to keep up. I think conditions will get worse before they get better.” Automation’s increasing efficiencies are overshadowed by the number of workers leaving the laboratory.

Neri said efforts to better promote laboratory careers to young people have had limited success as have various tuition abatement programs.

“I’m not as worried about phlebotomists and those in specimen processing as I am about the loss of experienced people skilled in analyzing and evaluating tests,” Neri said. “Technologists apply their analytical skills and training in evaluating laboratory information before it gets into the hands of patient care-givers. This is the area most affected by the shortages.” Neri and the CLMA have been hard at work promoting the professionalism of this integral and irreplaceable part of the health care team.

During the past 20 years, the number of accredited MT/CLS programs in the U.S. has dropped from over 600 in 1983 to about 250 in 2002, one survey found. Shortages are worse in Canada. After a decade of health care reforms there, medical lab technologist positions are down nearly 30 percent. Lab training programs have been downsized or eliminated entirely. More than 44 percent of Canada’s general medical technologists will be eligible for retirement as early as year 2015.

Apprenticeship programs to introduce students to the field and teach them basic clinical laboratory science skills are gaining popularity. That over 80 percent of those graduating from allied health programs around the country are women suggests the need for greater recruitment efforts directed at men.

Sherry Miner is Coordinator for Membership Services and the P.A.C.E. continuing education program at the 20,000-member American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS). Between 4,000 and 5,000 more people are leaving the lab field each year than are entering it. A bit of good news, according to Miner: while accredited programs continued their decline in 2002, total enrollment in existing programs actually increased slightly.

Career recruitment tools include beginning to target students earlier, at the junior high school and high school levels, to introduce them to the profession. The popularity of television shows like CSI has also increased awareness of medical science and technology. For those who have already decided on a career in clinical laboratory science, there is a growing use of distance education — where students take more courses on-line in advance of lab-based training.

ASCLS also supports broader licensing of laboratory professionals, Miner said. Currently only 11 states require licenses for laboratory staff.

“Licensure would add recognition and awareness that could boost interest in laboratory careers.” Compensation levels, she said, are below those available to new grads in other fields that have similar education requirements. A review conducted last year put the median MT/CLS annual salary at $44,029; $30,998 for MLT/CLTs.

“Some young people are most interested in a 9 to 5 job, without the requirements of working nights and weekends,” Miner said. “Hospital laboratory services, where most laboratory professionals work, must be staffed around the clock, seven days a week.”

“Higher pay would provide the biggest attraction. But with the economic conditions today and considering the price constraints in the health care environment, that’s not likely to happen,” Miner said. “The laboratory often is overlooked in the large picture, because we are not as visible as other members of the healthcare team. However, it is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of medical decisions are made based upon the results of laboratory tests.”

While supported by ASCLS, the issue of licensure still divides laboratorians and lab managers themselves (visit our Web site,, and in the August 2001 archives you will find an Editor’s Notebook filled with reader response to the question of licensure).

All of us agree on this: the clinical laboratory professional is an absolutely vital thread in the fabric of patient care, well-deserving of our respect, our appreciation, and above all, our support.

A new career brochure and CD is available on the ASCLS Website, at And, if you’re interested in shopping for a special person or two in your lab, you can find promotional items and gifts on the American Medical Technologists National Medical Laboratory Week products site at [removed][/removed],   or by calling 1-800-822-1923.

Nicholas Borgert is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.