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Demand growing, but fewer medical technologists entering field

Faced with a growing demand for medical laboratory technologists but a declining number of graduates entering that field, industry professionals are boosting their efforts to recruit prospective personnel.

Morgan State students Chandan Tamrakar (left) and Ram C. Budhamagar (center) show what they’ve learned about DNA fingerprinting to Elizabeth Viola-Knowles of Columbia-based COLA.

To highlight the abundant job opportunities in medical labs, employees of COLA — a Columbia-based lab accreditation organization — met on Monday with a few dozen Morgan State University students who are pursuing various science degrees as part of a week-long events series to promote the lower-visibility career.

James Liggins, COLA’s chief marketing officer, said Monday’s event targeted two categories of students: those already interested in medical technologies, and those studying general sciences, such as biology or chemistry.

They hope to introduce the latter group to a career path they may not have considered, Liggins said, while offering the first group a tangible employment option.

“We want to let them know the impact medical technologists have on the population,” Liggins said.

Industry professionals readily acknowledge the shortage of medical lab workers — in Maryland and across the country — and that the problem will be exacerbated as the baby boomer generation ages.

There are more than 40,000 vacancies nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And despite boasting renowned hospitals and government health agencies, Maryland isn’t immune from the national shortage.

A 2011 COLA survey found that 62 percent of labs in the state recently had difficulty filling positions, and in 2007, medical and clinical laboratory technicians were ranked the ninth most in-demand occupation, according to Maryland’s Commission on the Shortage in the Healthcare Workforce.

“We’re trying to raise the awareness of this career,” Liggins said. “A lot of students don’t know it’s an option, which then leads to more programs shutting down across the country.”

But encouraging students to seek training in the field isn’t enough to bridge the gap, said Deirdre Parsons, director of the Department of Medical and Research Technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. COLA hosted a similar event there Monday.

Some schools were forced to cut their programs even if the demand was there, Parsons said, because the technology-heavy, hands-on classes are simply too expensive to maintain.

Finding faculty is often the biggest problem, she said, and is further exacerbated by the fact that these professionals tend to be older, so their ranks will shrink rapidly as many retire at the same time.

Parsons credited UMB President Dr. Jay A. Perman and School of Medicine Dean E. Albert Reece with preserving the program throughout the recession.

Medical technologies ranked No. 7 on Kiplinger’s August list of the “10 Best College Majors for a Lucrative Career,” and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a 14.7 percent job growth rate between 2010 and 2020.

Liggins said almost all medical technology graduates out of Maryland’s colleges get jobs right out of school; Kiplinger estimated an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent for recent grads and 1.4 percent for the workforce.

Melissa M. Nichols, an executive with Alvare Associates, the marketing firm coordinating COLA’s initiatives, said they hoped Monday’s event would draw attention to the profession’s perks.

In one room, senior students presented their recent work to COLA employees and learned how else it could be applied throughout the medical field.

Several described the event, called Give Back Day, as a give-and-take with industry professionals.

“It means a lot to us,” said Chandan Tamrakar, a 27-year-old undergraduate in Morgan State’s medical technology program. “We are seeing the different fields we can go into, and it makes us feel safe to hear there’s almost a 100 percent [employment rate] after graduation.”

Tamrakar said he had always planned to enter the medical field as a physician, but after speaking with COLA employees, he grew interested in the other avenues available to him, he said.

Also to encourage enrollment in medical technology programs, COLA awarded $5,000 scholarships to four Morgan State students and three students at the Community College of Baltimore County, two schools offering the degrees.

The workforce shortage is increasingly urgent, experts said, because health care reform is expected to funnel 33 million more patients into the health care system and will encourage people to seek more preventative medical care — which means more lab testing.

Industry professionals are simply “holding their breath,” waiting to learn the outcome of the health care debate, she said.

“There’s already a lot of work,” Parsons said. “And we’d be adding an increased demand for lab services which will probably tax the system and impact the service more. We’ll need more professionals to do the work.”