While finding and retaining “good people” has been a perennial problem for labs, the COVID-19 pandemic has both intensified and changed the dynamic. We may be emerging from the pandemic, but we’re not quite returning to normal. Lab owners and managers will face a different set of hiring and recruiting challenges in the post-pandemic world, according to two staffing experts G2 Intelligence recently spoke with.
Recent Trends in Medical Lab Staffing
Unprecedented demand for PCR COVID-19 testing placed a premium on staff with a molecular testing background during the pandemic. While PCR testing will continue, staffing companies say the key needs for labs now are starting to shift back to what they were before the pandemic.
According to Maggie Morrissey, director of recruiting and staffing services at clinical lab consulting firm Lighthouse Lab Services, roughly 80 percent of the positions they were looking to fill during the pandemic’s peak related to molecular testing. Now, with testing demand declining, that has fallen to about 20 percent. As they were pre-COVID, those with backgrounds in areas such as chemistry, toxicology, cytology, and histotechnology are in highest demand, she says.
Meanwhile, many labs face the task of recalling or replacing older and immunocompromised staffers who retired to avoid infection during the pandemic. That won’t be easy, given the declining numbers of medical laboratory sciences programs, the aging workforce, and other long-running challenges.
Retention & Recruiting Challenges
Morrissey says that there will also be a pandemic hangover, including burnout and low morale due to continued understaffing. Lighthouse recently did a survey of 1,112 medical lab professionals, with 73 percent of respondents saying their labs were either moderately or significantly understaffed. Of those who described their labs as understaffed, 44 percent also reported feelings of dissatisfaction, which poses obvious retention challenges.
It adds up to a vicious cycle, Morrissey explains: your lab is understaffed, but you can’t find people to hire for the open positions. So, current employees have to work harder to the point where they quit—not just your lab, but in many cases, the entire industry, shrinking the labor pool that much more. So, the cycle repeats, only more intensely.
Other challenges brought on by the pandemic include disruptions to the training of an already limited number of new medical lab staff, as well as many of those who entered the workforce when the pandemic emerged only having molecular experience since they’ve only ever worked in COVID-19 testing labs that are now shutting down, Morrissey says.
Ed Dooling, chief executive officer and co-founder of Vanguard Healthcare Staffing adds these challenges are making it difficult for labs to find the right candidates quickly.
“Positions in the lab are open and may remain open for an extended period of time due to the fact there just are not as many qualified candidates,” he says. Rising salaries due to the intense demand for lab staff during the pandemic is another issue that may make it harder for smaller labs to compete.
“In Los Angeles, we were engaged in a search for an MLT [medical laboratory technologist] that was offered $140-$160 per hour,” Dooling says. “Another perk that has become more popular lately has been offering a sign-on bonus, which we have seen as high as $20,000. Companies have become more flexible with hours to accommodate staff as well.” However, he adds that he expects salaries to drop as the demand for COVID-19 testing continues to fall.
How to Attract Top Talent to Diagnostic Labs
Though these issues may seem insurmountable, especially for smaller labs, both Dooling and Morrissey stress that focusing on the basics of building an attractive work environment will help lab leaders draw talent to their labs, even if they can’t offer the highest salaries. That includes offerings such as:
- Flexible work schedules
- Work-life balance
- Paid time off
- Health benefits
- Access to day care
- Effective management
- Challenging work
- A strong, supportive work culture
- Relocation packages, depending on geographic location
While salary isn’t everything, Morrissey stresses that it’s still important for labs to do some quick research on job listing sites such as Glassdoor and Salary.com to get an idea of the average salaries for lab staff positions in their area. If the salary their lab is offering is significantly lower than other local labs, they’ll likely have more trouble attracting staff. “If they have the ability to wiggle on [salary], that’s something that we recommend,” she says.
Streamlining the interview process, building candidate pipelines by establishing strong relationships with local colleges that have medical lab programs, and offering internships at their labs are other keys to filling vacant staffing positions, Dooling and Morrissey say.
Casting a wide net by using all resources available is also essential to finding the right candidates, Dooling says:
“Work with trade associations, attend trade shows, and reach out to academic centers to provide on-site training for new technologists.” Using different recruiting firms and placing ads in scientific journals and other publications catering to the field are other ways labs can get the word out about open positions in their organization, he says.
Look After Your Current Lab Staff
Bringing in new lab staff is one thing, but getting them to stay is equally important, both staffing experts say. For retainment, having a strong manager who cares about staff as well as a clearly defined career ladder, so that staff can see how they can progress, are especially important, Morrissey says.
“Ensuring that the right manager is in place, somebody who actually understands people management and who has a good understanding of organizational structure and change management is really important,” she says. For managers, Morrissey says the following steps are important to help staff see that they’re making a difference and what they need to improve on:
- Meeting regularly with staff
- Setting clear goals and key performance indicators
- Providing regular feedback
Those higher up in the lab leadership team also need to make sure they’re meeting with employees as well and know who those employees are, so staff can see they matter to the company as a whole, she adds.
Dooling agrees that doing the basics well is essential to keeping staff happy and ensuring they stay for the long haul. “Take care of your existing employees, know their needs, and make sure you are meeting them,” he says. “Keeping the qualified people you have on staff today is crucial.”
What Labs Need to Do Going Forward
Both staffing experts add that automation can be another important tool to meeting today’s staffing challenges and, going forward, lab leaders will need to make sure they’re up to date on the latest offerings and willing to “embrace automation designed to improve productivity and quality,” Dooling says. He adds automation will likely play an even more important role in the future: “We will continue to see more technology roll out [that] is designed to make labs more efficient. The entire lab process will undergo a revolution with robotics and automation.”
In general, with staffing issues unlikely to be solved anytime soon, labs need to make sure they’re offering the best opportunities and can’t afford to let any elements staff are looking for fall by the wayside.
“At the end of the day, there’s still going to be a lab staffing shortage—you have to be the best lab in order to attract the right talent,” Morrissey says. “You can’t be mediocre.”