Scottish author Samuel Smiles once said, "Progress, of the best kind, is comparatively slow. Great results can't be achieved at once." Medical laboratory scientists across the nation are well aware that the battle for recognition and better salaries has been long and drawn out, with little to celebrate.
For decades, clinical laboratory workers have been paid less than other healthcare workers with equivalent educational backgrounds. Many medical technologists feel they have been treated as the red-headed step children of the healthcare industry. They are often relegated to working in hospital basements while nurses and physicians in sun-filled rooms receive heartfelt thank-you's from patients for diagnoses made possible by faceless scientists hunched over a microscope during the twilight hours.
Better Days Are Coming
Those same laboratorians can straighten their backs and take hope, for the winds of change bring good news. The coming year should usher in a golden era for medical laboratory scientists in which industry salaries and respect will finally begin to improve.
The reason for the optimism is that the variables that affect salary and recognition all seem to be moving in the right direction. Salary is basically determined by the laws of supply and demand. If supply is down and demand is up then salaries will increase over the long term. Currently, the number of clinical laboratory jobs (approximately 362,000) exceeds the number of clinical laboratory workers (approximately 328,000), and this trend will continue with an ever-widening gap between the two for the foreseeable future.
The field of clinical laboratory medicine is anticipated to grow by 14% over the next 10 years as a result of increased demand for laboratory testing due to an aging population, as well as new types of tests associated with the booming personalized medicine market.
However, this strengthening in demand is a minor factor compared to the looming decrease in supply that will make medical technologists and technicians a sought-after commodity. The medical laboratory workforce is aging much faster than other professions and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a stunning 40% of the laboratory work force will be retiring between 2008 and 2018. With many individuals delaying retirement these last few years due to deflated retirement accounts and slumping home prices, the massive exodus is still to come.
In September, the DOW Jones Industrial Average hit a multi-year high as the worst of the Great Recession seems to be behind us. Certainly some percentage of individuals who have been delaying retirement will look to hang up their lab coats and reach for their Hawaiian shirts in 2013. This widening decrease in supply and increase in demand will result in higher salaries. In fact, over the last few years, the salaries have already begun to increase at a much higher rate than other occupations. In 2010, the average worker received a -3% increase in salary while medical laboratory scientists saw an increase of 6.86% - a net difference of 10% in total. Salaries should continue to climb faster than average for at least the next 5 years.
A Time for Respect
While respect and recognition are much more difficult to quantify and track than salary figures, they are on the rise and will continue to improve in 2013.
One of the greatest strides made in this area occurred when ASCP and NCA merged in the fall of 2009, solving an image problem the industry had been struggling with for decades. Many in the public incorrectly assumed the vague title of medical technologist referred to someone who graduated from a six-week course and took patients' vital signs at a doctor's office. Even a good portion of healthcare workers seem unaware that medical technologists have completed a bachelor's degree.
In the wake of the ASCP and NCA merger, the new title of medical laboratory scientist was agreed upon as a replacement for medical technologist. This title change is a good step toward receiving the respect appropriate for the requisite education and training, yet there has been resistance to change from within the field. The majority of medical technologists have clung to the familiar title they have lived with for years, regardless of its flaws. However, with each graduating class of medical laboratory scientists, the new title is being used more frequently throughout the industry.
"The Today Show" recently produced a piece on the 10 best college degrees. Not surprisingly, medical laboratory science was right there in the middle - it claims the eighth smallest unemployment rate of all college majors. With all indicators trending in their favor, medical laboratory scientists are entering a golden era.
Jon Harol, CPC, SPHR is a partner at Lighthouse Recruiting, LLC, specializing in the placement of clinical laboratory professionals nationwide.