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Boosting Retention and Hiring in Medical Laboratories

by | Feb 26, 2024 | Employment-lca, Essential, Lab Industry Advisor

Key reasons for continued staffing shortages and tips for addressing these issues to support current staff and attract new talent.

It’s no secret staffing shortages have long been a challenge in medical laboratories, yet the problem continues to persist following the chaos created by the pandemic response. Employee turnover, especially due to retirements and the aging workforce, has become one of the most significant hurdles labs face as the industry works to bolster the overall recruitment pipeline.

The current hiring environment makes it crucial for lab leaders to implement innovative strategies that help attract top talent while at the same time fostering a loyal and engaged workforce.

Joe Kessler, director of recruiting for Lighthouse Lab Services, a Charlotte, NC-based lab recruiting and management firm, says the aging workforce is just one of several factors that have gestated for decades to make the workforce shortage an acute pain point for the lab industry. Given this reality, labs should strive to address their staffing issues in a timely manner so the effects of being short-staffed do not compound.

“The more short-staffed a lab becomes, the more that lab has to rely on existing staff to cover shifts, to work overtime, to pull weekends, evenings, or nights,” Kessler says, emphasizing that a lab’s existing quality employees are among its most precious assets. “Chronic understaffing contributes to a lack of work-life balance that becomes damaging over the long term and places a great strain on those employees who stick around.”

The ongoing causes of lab staffing shortages

Despite the longstanding awareness surrounding this issue, staffing shortages in medical laboratories continue to be a critical concern. Two oft-referenced root causes are the lack of qualified lab technologists entering the workforce and the previously mentioned aging population of those remaining in the field.

As the current workforce ages, the shortage extends beyond bench-level personnel to affect management ranks. This in turn causes managers and supervisors to delay retirement due to the scarcity of qualified replacements, creating a downstream effect that further limits the pool of experienced individuals available for leadership positions.

According to a 2020 survey of medical labs by the American Society for Clinical Pathology, vacancy rates exceeded seven percent (up to 13.1 percent) for most categories of laboratory personnel, and anticipated retirement rates were projected to exceed 20 percent within the next five years.1 Additionally, a 2022 analysis from Forbes estimates the US is short by 20,000-25,000 qualified lab professionals.2

Kessler says the issue is further exacerbated when individuals with medical technology degrees or medical laboratory scientist qualifications voluntarily choose to leave the industry. Some shift to related fields such as instrumentation sales or consulting, while others exit the clinical space altogether. Understanding the reasons behind this attrition is crucial for developing effective retention strategies that help to avoid these defections in the future.

When these individuals are asked why they chose to leave the field, two predominant reasons emerge:

1. Compensation disparity

Many departing lab professionals cite a perception that their pay has not kept pace with the cost of living, Kessler says. Some laboratories, particularly within hospital systems, struggle to match the wage increases offered by independent reference laboratories. Rigid pay scales, particularly in hospital systems, and slow responses to needed wage adjustments also contribute to talent outflow.

“I think that’s where the laboratory industry has really fallen short,” Kessler says. “Whether it’s lack of internal advocacy for compensation increases or an administration that doesn’t necessarily see the value provided by the laboratory, the effect is the same: good people leaving the industry to make a better living elsewhere.”

2. Work-life balance challenges

The next most cited reason for lab professionals leaving the workforce is the negative impact inadequate staffing levels cause on their work-life balance, which in turn contributes to burnout.

According to the 2023 results of an annual industry workforce survey conducted by Lighthouse Lab Services, lab professionals remain acutely aware of the staffing challenges they’re facing. Out of more than 1,000 respondents, 41 percent indicated their lab is moderately understaffed and 26 percent described their lab as significantly understaffed.3

The impact this issue has on morale remains palpable. Among survey respondents who reported staffing shortages, 41 percent described themselves as extremely or moderately unsatisfied in their role, while another 24 percent stated their morale was neutral.3

Addressing this challenge may require innovative solutions like leveraging as needed staff to ease the workload and avoid excessive demands on the core team, Kessler notes while conceding this strategy is more feasible for labs and health systems in more densely populated areas.

Additionally, the use of recruiting agencies or temporary staffing solutions can offer a pathway to reducing immediate demands on your existing staff. Partnering with reputable and lab-specific firms provides greater access to a broader pool of qualified candidates. While there will likely be associated costs, the benefits of faster hiring and reduced strain on internal resources typically outweigh the expenses.

Tips to boost employee retention and morale

Above all else, Kessler emphasizes that it’s almost always dramatically cheaper for a lab to retain an existing employee as opposed to hiring a new one. Given the expense of conducting a search, onboarding an individual, and potentially training them for a new role, retention of quality employees should be a lab’s top personnel goal.

Below are a few points of emphasis that can help labs retain (or attract) top talent:

1. Ensure competitive compensation and shorten recruiting cycles

Regularly assess and adjust base salaries to keep pace with inflation and market standards. Offering competitive compensation is crucial for retaining skilled professionals, and addressing this need must be a priority. When attracting new talent, offer competitive compensation packages and consider additional perks, such as sign-on bonuses and relocation incentives. Highlighting these benefits can make job offers more appealing to potential candidates.

When facing acute staffing demands, you should also look to shorten recruitment cycles in order to swiftly fill vacant positions and avoid placing additional strain on your remaining staff.

2. Flexible scheduling and work-life balance

To enhance work-life balance, laboratories should explore flexible scheduling options and invest in temporary staff when necessary to alleviate the burden on full-time employees.

Offering better perks and benefits, such as bonuses and paid time off, is also a great tool to utilize. However, it can be difficult to grant your employees these perks if you’re struggling to maintain proper staffing levels in the first place.

3. Professional development opportunities and pipeline management

Provide opportunities for professional growth and development, especially for promising individuals within your existing staff. Avoid arbitrary gatekeeping based solely on years of experience and focus on competence and potential. This approach can help fill leadership gaps and foster loyalty among employees.

Your lab can also work to establish and maintain relationships with educational institutions as a means of nurturing a continuous pipeline of qualified candidates. Collaborating with academic programs can help address the industry’s long-term workforce challenges.

4. Recognition and appreciation

Regularly acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of the laboratory team. Recognition programs, performance incentives, and a positive work culture can significantly contribute to employee morale and job satisfaction. Staff pizza parties are a thing of the past, and labs should look to offer incentives that energize employees, which could include additional time off or pay bonuses for productivity.

Conclusion: Fostering a resilient and sustainable workforce

Addressing employee retention and optimizing hiring practices in medical laboratories requires a multifaceted approach with compensation at the forefront. Laboratories must proactively adapt to the evolving needs of their workforce, offering competitive benefits, prioritizing work-life balance, and providing opportunities for professional growth. Simultaneously, efficient hiring practices, collaboration with external experts and industry resources, and talent pipeline management are essential for staying ahead in a competitive market as industry advocates work to increase the number of training programs and overall talent pool in the coming decades.

By implementing these strategies, medical laboratories can create a conducive environment for both attracting and retaining skilled professionals, helping in turn to foster a resilient and sustainable workforce for the industry as a whole.


    1. https://academic.oup.com/ajcp/article/157/6/874/6447576?login=false

    1. https://www.forbes.com/sites/judystone/2022/04/28/were-facing-a-critical-shortage-of-medical-laboratory-professionals/?sh=a33e60c260c2

    1. https://www.lighthouselabservices.com/2023-wage-and-morale-survey-of-medical-laboratory-professionals/

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