The laboratory industry is ripe with career opportunities as both common and niche services continue to grow in response to demand. Though exciting, this growth is also problematic as the part of the workforce entering retirement outnumbers laboratory professionals entering the field.
Many people move through high school and secondary education with little to no exposure to the laboratory. Therefore, the laboratory industry must endeavor to reach potential workforce members earlier in the career process to pull more prospective laboratorians into the field.
This can be accomplished by highlighting the many opportunities in laboratory science and emphasizing the critical impact of the laboratory to patients and providers.
The laboratory science industry
Laboratory services are an essential part of the healthcare industry, necessary for appropriate patient management and clinical research. Apart from health care, laboratory professions are also part of the environmental, veterinary, and chemical industries.
A career in the sciences is versatile, where knowledge from one specialty or industry is transferable to others. For example, a professional with a background in clinical chemistry or microbiology could also pursue a career in industries beyond health care. Similarly, it is quite common for a health system to employ a professional with specialty in a single field like flow cytometry, mass spectrometry, microbiology, etc.
The laboratory industry offers many opportunities with varying credential requirements from a high school diploma to post-doctorate work. Careers include lab assistant, clinical researcher or consultant, medical director, medical laboratory scientist, technical specialist, safety and quality officer, educator, outreach coordinator, and more. The opportunities are diverse, depending on the size of the health system.
The labor dilemma in clinical labs
Labor shortages are being exacerbated by the aging of the nation. Job growth in the laboratory industry is expected to grow 7 percent over the next decade. Some of this growth is due to expected retirements, as well as continued expansion of the industry and niche services. With unemployment at a multi-decade low, competition for future lab professionals remains fierce.
Predictive models anticipate a tsunami of healthcare demand that the laboratory industry needs to stand ready to support. As laboratory science is a diverse field with many career tracts, laboratory services (especially those in health care) will need to be creative to replace retirements and meet the rising demand.
Finding future laboratory professionals
At the collegiate level, laboratory managers and recruiters can start by reaching out to a training program representative to request to speak directly to students at the earliest phase of their education about career promotion opportunities. We can no longer wait for students to find and compete for these opportunities.
For students enrolled in an appropriate program, Bellin Health now hires those candidates six to nine months in advance and holds the position for them until graduation. For jobs with vacancies lasting six or more months, anticipate the need to hire personnel in advance of staff turnover and attrition. Still more can be done by engaging high school students who are beginning to think about their future careers and introducing them to careers beyond becoming a registered nurse or medical doctor.
At our health system, we have connected with a local high school to provide a job shadowing program. Each week for one hour, students shadow someone in a different healthcare department. This is one way our lab team can engage with students and promote medical laboratory science as a fun and fulfilling career.
Laboratory leaders should look for (or create) the opportunity to collaborate on outreach work with other organizations. For example, the Wisconsin Clinical Laboratory Network, or WCLN, is working with the Wisconsin School Counselor Association to help steer students interested in science and health care into the laboratory field.
A patient’s perspective of the clinical lab
The impact of the laboratory on patient care is undeniable, yet most patients do not know the extent that diagnosis, management, and treatment plans are driven by the laboratory team. I had the pleasure of discussing this with a recent patient, Theresa.
Theresa’s story started with the development of eye pain, discharge, and blurred vision, consistent with keratitis. Initially, she was given steroid drops to use over several days but this failed to resolve the issue. She was then referred to an ophthalmologist who collected cultures and prescribed antibiotic drops. Within two days, our laboratory had culture growth (Fig 1.), and we were able to presumptively identify the fungus Fusarium spp. (Fig 2.). This finding prompted a prescription change from the ineffective antibacterial eyedrops to the necessary antifungal eyedrops.
The timely, and unlikely, finding of a fungal organism like Fusarium spp. is critical, as prolonged infection can lead to permanent damage and/or loss of the entire eye. Compounding the importance of her case, Theresa is a cytologist whose essential job function requires microscope work. Loss of eye function would have serious consequences for her livelihood. Thankfully, with the correct antifungal eye drops, she is making a slow but steady recovery. “The microbiology lab’s expertise and accuracy has made a lifesaving difference for me,” said Theresa.
A care team’s perspective of the clinical lab
The importance of the clinical laboratory team in patient medical decisions cannot be overstated. When I asked Manar Alshahrouri, MD, our attending pulmonologist how the laboratory has impacted him, he said, “I have found the lab to be very collaborative, initiating discussion on what testing is appropriate or if an alternative test option is preferable. Onsite Pathology and Microbiology have been phenomenal for rapid diagnosis, even calling blastomycosis [a rare fungal infection] on several outpatient procedures before the patient even left the hospital.” While laboratorians may at times feel underappreciated, the expansion of and increase in laboratory testing will continue to drive the importance of laboratory involvement and recognition for its role in effective patient care. And though laboratorians are aware of their impact, it is encouraging to see their hard work recognized by other members of the care team.
Looking forward to tomorrow's clinical lab
These accounts from patient and care teams demonstrate the importance of the clinical laboratory. These experiences, and others like it, need to be shared with potential lab professionals. Labor shortages combined with increased workloads pose a significant threat to the future of the laboratory profession. Today’s clinical labs need to work in earnest to find and secure future employees earlier in the career process to fill the lab positions of tomorrow.