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Outside the Lab Laboratory management, Training and education

Surveying the Workforce Landscape

The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) has been conducting its wage and vacancy surveys of non-physician laboratory professionals since 1988. Through the last 30 years, the laboratory workforce has experienced changes driven by expected challenges, such as hiring, recruitment and retention – but also by other factors, such as the economy, new technologies, and government regulation. The newly released ASCP 2016–2017 Vacancy Survey (1) suggests that US-based laboratories will need to redouble their efforts to develop and maintain a skilled workforce. Current survey data reveal that we can anticipate a massive increase in retirements of laboratory professionals over the next five years. Worse yet, the exodus is expected to be particularly acute for supervisory-level personnel.

With overall unemployment rates (4.1 percent) at their lowest levels since 2008, clinical laboratory work shifts that were difficult to fill during and after the recession – such as night, double, or weekend shifts – are proving to be so once again. On average, hiring staff takes three to six months for most departments, and it can take anywhere from three months to a full year to hire a supervisor. Data from the previous survey (conducted two years prior) indicated that it took laboratories only three to six months to fill supervisory vacancies at that time.

Across the nation, the overall vacancy rate was highest for LIS/QA/PI departments (10.98 percent) and lowest for anatomic pathology departments (4.7 percent). Survey data suggest, however, that vacancies in general are most problematic in rural areas and at small community hospitals, where they often take longer to fill and can leave laboratories with heavier workloads.

Survey respondents also indicated that workloads and automation have increased the need for lower-level staff to perform routine testing, which in turn enables upper-level laboratory staff (such as laboratory scientists or technologists) to concentrate more on running and verifying test results. As fewer staff perform more total testing, turnaround time becomes increasingly dependent on the staff’s level of expertise and training. This, coupled with the loss of experienced laboratory supervisors, may be fueling employers’ interest in recruiting certified technologists – a speculation borne out by comparisons between the new data and the previous survey’s results.

Recently, the ASCP presented its wage and vacancy data to the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Advisory Committee (CLIAC), a federal government advisory panel. It prompted much concern from – and discussion by – the committee in terms of how best to tackle the shortage of qualified laboratory personnel. Unfortunately, that seems to be an issue with no easy answers. Anecdotal information suggests that existing laboratory training programs have difficulties in maintaining funding, which means that clinical laboratories may have to train their own staff to meet workforce needs – a potentially expensive and time-consuming process.

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  1. E Garcia et al., “The American Society for Clinical Pathology’s 2016-2017 vacancy survey of medical laboratories in the United States”, Am J Clin Pathol, 149, 387–400 (2018). PMID: 29522068.
About the Author
James L. Wisecarver

James L. Wisecarver is President of the American Society for Clinical Pathology.

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