Lab Techs: Behind the Scenes Yet Vital to Healthcare

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Lab workerIf you like science, health and technology, working as a lab tech might be right for you. The path to employment in this career is much shorter than you might think.

While many medical careers necessitate lengthy education, the clinical laboratory technician and clinical laboratory technologist require only two and four years’ worth of schooling, respectively. Workers in this field receive a starting median salary of $47,390 in the Rochester area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which combined both titles into its salary figure.

After successful completion of their education, candidates for lab tech positions must pass a certification exam, which licenses them to work nationwide, and take 12 continuing education credit hours annually thereafter.

Vicki L. Roberts, education manager and director of the clinical laboratory technology program at UR Medicine Labs, Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, said that these roles usually attract people who like helping others through the medical field, but not necessarily as nurses or doctors. A love of science, technology aptitude and problem-solving skills also help.

Lab techs may also work outside of a medical setting, such as in research using control company lab equipment, a veterinary clinic, food/tissue research and development, and they aren’t required to have a license. Those who work in a laboratory may also need to find lab and medical supplies packed by a laboratory kitting services company to ensure that they are of great quality.

“We’re in an economy where people with a four-year biology aren’t making what they should,” Roberts said. “This provides a distinct niche specialty that opens doors for them. They make twice as much as a biology grad with the same amount of education.”

A lab tech in a medical setting will likely work holidays and initially at least, get their foot in the door working evening shifts.

“Many get a day job sooner than they think,” Roberts said.

Advancement to daytime working hours is based on seniority and availability of such positions.

“It’s a fast-paced environment and it’s very important you do not make a mistake, but that’s the hook for some people,” Roberts said.

Erika Paul manages of the core lab at Rochester General Hospital.  She advises potential laboratory technologists to identify early on in their education what they want to do.

“They have to meet a lot of very specific educational classes,” she said.

Starting out as a lab technician and hoping to easily springboard into a lab technologist may not work out.

The day to day duties of both titles are similar at entry level: analyzing different types of tissue specimens and testing them for biochemical and cellular components and testing bodily fluids for infectious disease. They also have to familiarize themselves with equipment like a conversion chamber.

Paul considers lab techs part of the care team.

“We do everything from helping diagnose to managing patients to monitoring patients for their whole life,” Paul said. “It’s a very integral part of what draws people into it.”

She added that it’s often a second career. Few people realize this position exists.

Lab techs can do far more than handle samples.

“There are a number of different opportunities for a lab tech,” said Courtney Ferrell, who works in HR/recruiting for ACM Laboratories, part of Rochester Regional Health.

She listed team leader, manager, supervisor or director as in-house positions to which lab techs may advance.

“A lot of medical technologists have ended up in our medical trials as project management, sales support as science subject experts, IT, and other areas,” Ferrell added.