The medical laboratory workforce is an in-demand career these days. There is a shortage of laboratory professionals as many are retiring while demand for laboratory testing is increasing.
“The COVID pandemic put a spotlight on how important the laboratory staff is,” says Kimberly W. Sanford, MD, MASCP, MT(ASCP), board president of the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP), the world’s largest professional membership organization for pathologists and laboratory professionals. “We all saw the days and weeks of backlogs of test results, where laboratories were just inundated with testing.” Laboratory professionals were critical in performing those tests and determining diagnoses. Dr. Sanford adds that in addition to COVID-19 testing, lab professionals perform highly complex and precise tests daily as part of patient care.
Careers in laboratory science are dynamic and different every day. It’s a rewarding, hands-on profession for people who love science.
“You’ll never be bored pursuing a career in laboratory medicine,” says ASCP CEO E. Blair Holladay, Ph.D., MASCP, SCT(ASCP)CM. “We are scientific detectives, searching for the clues and finding the answers to an issue or ailment a patient is experiencing.” Those answers, he continues, are the diagnoses that often help save lives. And more laboratory professionals are needed in the field.
Phlebotomists are in high demand with a job outlook rate of 17 percent between 2019 and 2029. The job rate for medical laboratory scientist (MLS) and medical laboratory technician (MLT) is expected to be 7 percent between 2019 and 2029. Average growth rate for all occupations is 4 percent.
Lab professionals provide their clinician colleagues with the information needed to make informed decisions about a patient’s treatment. Without that laboratory input, diagnosis, and treatment would be a guessing game at best.
“The laboratory staff is a critical part of the healthcare team and if you do not have trained, educated, certified laboratory professionals, and pathologists, you are not going to be able to provide the analysis, and therefore the diagnosis, for your patient in order to render treatment,” says Dr. Sanford.
To help students get started on their lab science career journey, ASCP launched whatsmynext.org. The site explains the education and experience requirements needed to pursue different careers in the laboratory. For example, with a high school diploma and completion of an educational program, one can become a phlebotomist or a medical laboratory assistant. One can become a medical laboratory technician (MLT) or a histotechnician (HT) with an Associate’s degree and completion of a program. If you have a bachelor’s degree and complete a program for medical laboratory scientist (MLS) or cytotechnologist (CT), one can become an MLS or CT.
“Over 95 percent of MLS students nationwide have jobs after they graduate,” says Dr. Sanford.
Careers in lab science are fairly well compensated, with MLTs earning $30,000 to $50,000 a year and MLSs earning $60,000 to $100,000. There are career advancement opportunities too, with many choosing to pursue a Ph.D. or M.D. Those salaries start at $150,000.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion
ASCP created a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee and grassroots volunteer network to do targeted outreach to underrepresented communities and help educate students and young adults on the different opportunities in the field. They’re committed to helping Native Americans, Latinos, and Blacks, who are the most underrepresented among clinical laboratory personnel relative to the general population and the overall workforce, understand, and pursue opportunities to enter and grow in the field.
“Our profession needs to reflect the populations that we serve,” says Dr. Holladay. “And as members of the laboratory, there is not a single population we don’t serve.”
Dr. Holladay is excited for the next generation of laboratory leaders. They are the future of the profession and hold the keys to the research and scientific discovery that will medicine forward.
“Here’s an opportunity for you to be on the front line, making diagnostic decisions, where you’re really bringing a wealth of solutions to save patients’ lives every single day,” he says.
Get started researching your career in lab sciences: whatsmynext.org/.