Laboratory staffing challenges

People working to address healthcare challenges

Addressing today's staffing challenges in the laboratory

Working today. Working tomorrow?

Over the next few years, a majority of the laboratory workforce is expected to retire—a troubling trend that is decades in the making. While the shortage of qualified laboratory professionals in the workforce continues to grow, enrollment and graduation of medical laboratory professionals is at nowhere near sufficient levels to keep pace with rising demand.

This is exacerbated by the fact that, while the number of Medical Lab Technician (MLT) certificates has seen 81% growth,1 a significant number of these certificates were awarded to people advancing other careers, rather than entering the laboratory workforce. An ongoing shortage of skilled workers—from nurses to physicians to lab technicians—will mean hundreds of thousands of positions will remain unfilled. However, recruitment issues are not the only reason for the staffing shortage.

The shift from menial to meaningful

As the next generation of laboratory staff enter the workforce, so come changes. Younger workers have different expectations than the preceding generations. Many management experts will tell you that salary and title are not the most important factors in attracting or retaining employees. This is a fundamental shift in mindset. The former number one motivator for talented individuals has changed from payment to purpose.

It is reported that more than 9 out of 10 employees are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work—some say they would even forego up to 23% of their entire future earnings.2 So, if employees expect more than a monthly paycheck in return for their efforts, what do they actually want?


Fulfilling employee expectations

It’s no surprise to hear people want to be appreciated by their employers—nor is it to hear that individuals tend to be attracted to jobs that challenge and engage them. What is surprising, however, is the widespread adoption of this mentality that warrants the writing of this article.

Employees are increasingly motivated by work that is meaningful. They seek active professional growth while also seeking personal growth—striving to achieve milestones and looking for opportunities to reach new creative heights. They tend also to be motivated by the social side of working. Would working in culture where employees can buy in to a higher collective purpose be enough to transcend this barrier between work-life and personal life? And what impact might the complexities of the laboratory workforce shortage have long term?

Future sustainability is a legitimate concern

Continuous technological advances, limited training opportunities, and an aging workforce further threaten the future of diagnostic quality and throughput. As technology advances and evolves, staying up to date with the latest trends is a constant struggle. Clinical practices are demanding more molecular and genetic testing, and the laboratory workforce needs to be equipped with the required skills to perform these complex workflows. Beyond testing, lack of training may cause a number of other issues.

Proper staff training and assessment is vital for quality assurance and to fill knowledge gaps. Shortages in personnel trained by accredited lab programs force hiring managers to bring in individuals with limited training to perform low- and at times, high-complexity tests. Unskilled managers can also be a frequent cause of stress for employees, potentially affecting productivity and morale.

Lastly, there are not enough new professionals entering the workforce to replace retiring ones. Data from 2015 show higher vacancy rates as well as higher anticipated retirement rates compared to the 2 previous years. By department, these rates are highest in chemistry (24%), followed by hematology (20%), microbiology (19.5%), and blood banks (19%).3 Despite these trends, laboratories must find ways to future-proof themselves against any decrease in quality or performance.

Revisiting the quest for meaning

In a time where there is a shortage of talented specialists, demand for more meaningful work is likely to grow. Trends show that people stay at jobs where they feel like their work makes a difference and investing in employees is a good way to increase engagement.  In fact, engaged employees are reportedly up to 50% more productive and 33% more profitable.4

As every lab is unique, identifying the best approach for you requires getting in touch with what your employees are really motivated by. As elevating job satisfaction likely results in increased efficiency, maintaining a productive laboratory may be easier than you think.

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  1. The American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science. Addressing the clinical laboratory workforce shortage. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  2. Harvard Business Review. 9 Out of 10 People Are Willing to Earn Less Money to Do More-Meaningful Work. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  3. McKesson. Microbiology & Staffing Issues in the Community Hospital. Accessed November 14, 2019.
  4. Harvard Business Review. What Job Candidates Really Want: Meaningful Work. Accessed November 14, 2019.