Amy Wilson won’t have to wait long to trade her graduation gown for a lab coat.
Hospitals are already offering her jobs in advance of her June graduation from Dalton State College’s medical laboratory program.
There is a high demand for students trained to perform frequently needed laboratory procedures such blood tests, medical officials say.
“I always knew I wanted to work in the medical field, and I also liked working in labs in school, so I decided to make it a career,” said Ms. Wilson, 22, a Cleveland, Tenn., native who is fulfilling her clinical training requirements at Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.
Doris Shoemaker, a professor at Dalton State College, said more interested students are needed to keep up with the demand from medical labs for new employees.
Compounding the lab technician shortage is a looming surge of baby boomer retirements that wipe out 50 percent of the existing workforce, Ms. Shoemaker said.
“We’re going to have a real need for (laboratory technicians). In fact, we already need them,” she said. “Across the nation, it’s really becoming a problem.”
But options for training in the medical laboratory field have dwindled.
Waning enrollment has caused many schools such as Cleveland State Community College in Cleveland, Tenn., to cut medical laboratory technician programs.
The number of accredited medical laboratory programs has declined 35 percent in the past 15 years, according to the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science.
Cleveland State President Dr. Carl Hite said the college decided to end its classes in 2001.
“We gave it a two-year shot, and it just didn’t happen,” he said. “We had an opportunity to try everything we could with additional advertising, marketing, etc., but the demand just wasn’t there.”
That leaves Dalton State as the only school in the Chattanooga area with a medical lab program.
But Dalton State is struggling to maintain enrollment, with 10 graduates last year and five this year.
The college is hosting several programs aimed to spur interest this week in recognition of National Medical Laboratory Professionals Week.
“We need more students in this program,” Ms. Shoemaker said.
Graduates with a two-year degree from Dalton State can immediately enter the workforce , or they can complete a bachelor’s program online through the Georgia College of Medicine, Ms. Shoemaker said.
She said Dalton State College has a 100 percent placement rate.
“Our students have a job the day they finish,” Ms. Shoemaker said.
Margaret Herrin, director of laboratory services at Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton, said the hospital relies on Dalton State’s program to provide employees.
Laboratory testing has increased 28 percent at the hospital over the past five years, with about 600,000 tests conducted last year, she said. Those tests range from typing blood samples to pathology tests.
“We’re always very busy,” Ms. Herrin said.
The medical laboratory field is expected to grow 14 percent during the next decade, which is “faster than average for all occupations,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians held about 319,000 jobs in 2006, the agency reports. More than half of jobs were in hospitals, although there are other opportunities in physician offices and blood banks.
Ms. Herrin said working in a hospital lab is a rewarding career.
“It’s the science behind the medicine, where you are helping with the diagnosis, which is the beginning,” she said. “It has to be a good diagnose to get good treatment.”