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Creative strategies to survive the shortage.

A newly promoted lab manager scrambled to find workers for the 3-11 shift and to fill her own former position as evening supervisor. Her solutions were driven by flexibility and imagination.

Like many laboratories nationwide, our laboratory was feeling the serious impact of the growing personnel shortage. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified technologists to fill our vacant positions. Hiring laboratorians for the evening shift was particularly challenging.

Promoted to lab manager last year, my first mission was to find full-time medical technologists to cover the 3-11 shift as well as an evening supervisor to fill the position that I had vacated. To make matters worse, the one technologist still working the evening shift had requested a transfer to another hospital in our system, which left that shift with one technician who had less than a year's seniority and a part-time technician who had just finished training.

We quickly learned that this situation required us to seek new, innovative ways to run our operation. Adhering to tradition was no longer a realistic consideration. * Initial steps. While screening applicants, I had to make sure that the evening shift was adequately covered. I completed a schedule outlining every position that was currently open on our staff, including day-shift positions, and passed it around to the technologists along with a memo asking them to fill in until the staffing crisis was over. I decided to work at the bench myself on the days no one volunteered to cover.

At my first department meeting, I told my staff what to expect for the time being and asked for their full support. In addition, I encouraged them to offer suggestions that would help us work more effectively. The technologists made it clear that the quality of our new employees was a primary concern. There were times in the past when we had been tempted to hire people who did not meet our expectations. Ultimately, however, we understood the importance of hiring well-trained laboratorians and never opted to fill vacancies at the risk of compromising the quality of our services. * Recruitment. Fortunately, we have a recruitment department that coordinates all hiring initiatives at the hospital. I explained to the recruiter up front that we needed to find technologists who could work effectively and efficiently in a general lab. These individuals had to be able to handle the stress associated math juggling multiple tasks and keeping up with the work sent down from our busy emergency room. Former employees who lacked the necessary constitution to manage these duties had resigned shortly after being hired.

Our recruiter placed classified ads in a prominent local newspaper as well as in a small newspaper from a nearby city. Advertising in the latter publication enabled us to avoid fierce competition. In fact, most of our applicants had responded to this solicitation.

To further our efforts, we participated in college career days and high school career fairs. Even though these activities did not generate immediate interest from participants, we were optimistic that exposing students to the field would benefit us sometime down the road. * Ways to a means. There are several things that employers can do to attract prospective employees to their facilities - and to keep them there. Many hospitals offer sign-on bonuses and scholarship programs, for example. Recently, our facility instituted a loan-forgiveness program, which allows graduates of medical technology programs to work off their student loans through employment in our lab.

We knew, however, that this initiative would not be the answer to all our problems. After weighing several options, we decided to offer laboratorians the opportunity to work part time and to encourage alternative work schedules. These freedoms have attracted several new candidates to our hospital and have lowered employee turnover and absenteeism. We also have addressed the shortage by recruiting students and more technicians and by providing every laboratorian with cross-training opportunities. * Part-time help. Initial responses to our ads came from individuals seeking part-time employment. I was reluctant to interview these candidates at first. After all, we rarely employed part-time workers, and I felt it would be too difficult to keep these individuals updated on daily procedural changes. Fortunately, I didn't follow my instincts. There are real advantages to employing part-timers. They are usually willing and able to work extra hours without accruing overtime. This provides staffing flexibility when full-time personnel are ill or on vacation and keeps the budget in line. Part-timers also are a wonderful source of new ideas and vital information. Additionally, we realized that keeping these employees informed of important day-to-day procedural changes was not a problem. Such notices are posted in our computer's mailbox. Laboratorians can log into the computer system at any time of the day and immediately read what has taken place in their absence.

A resourceful alternative. As our search for technologists continued, the laboratorians who were working extra days to cover the 3-11 shift were beginning to burn out. It was time to revamp our schedule. I decided to let my staff work as a team to accomplish this difficult task. I explained that if they could come up with a schedule that provided sufficient coverage for all three shifts, I would approve it.

For days, they negotiated, compromised, and manipulated the schedule. Finally a creative solution was devised-employees would work alternative shifts. Two people were willing to work 10 hours a day, four days a week. One person made a commitment to work weekends so she could be off on weekdays. Another employee volunteered to work a double shift on Fridays in order to stay home another day during the week. A medical technologist who wanted her mornings free agreed to start work later in the day and to stay longer in the evening during peak hours.

This exercise taught me an important lesson: Most employees are willing to compromise when given the freedom to participate in decision making. The flexible schedule helped us to pull through a difficult time and to recruit technologists to our lab.

Students.one day I received a call from an MLT student inquiring about an open position. Again I was skeptical. Hiring students would be another first for our lab. Still, she sounded enthusiastic and determined, so I set up an interview. It didn't take long for her to convince me that she was qualified; I offered her a part-time position. She has proved to be a sound investment. After graduation, she accepted a full-time position with us.

Technicians. During our search for qualified technologists, we realized that we were neglecting a valuable source of manpower - the medical laboratory technician. Since there are more of these workers than technologists in the field, technicians are much easier to recruit. We have hired quite a few since then. The technicians currently working in our lab do not perform supervisory duties, but they are responsible for many of the same technical duties as our technologists.

Cross-training. Because we are a general laboratory, we train our technologists and technicians to work in all sections of the laboratory, and they are required to rotate daily. As a result, they remain knowledgeable in all lab disciplines so they are well equipped to cover for one another when necessary. The lab staff also remains more motivated, as they are presented with different challenges every day. * Maximizing efficiency. As new employees were brought on board, we knew that the time was right to search for ways to operate more efficiently. Reducing the amount of time and technologists needed to perform certain tests would ultimately help us prevent another personnel shortage.

We began by carefully evaluating our current procedures and instruments. Several of our new technologists told us we were lagging behind in technology and procedures. For example, we were performing bilirubin, protein, and salicylate tests manually on the spectrophotometer, along with weekly and monthly preventive maintenance. We now send proteins and bilirubins out; salicylates are done on our new therapeutic drug analyzer.

While studying our operations, we also learned that employees were spending too much time repairing our eight-year-old chemistry analyzer, which had considerable down time. Since the purchase of a new analyzer, we now provide a four-hour turnaround on profiles instead of 24 hours. Bilirubins and proteins are performed on site instead of being referred to another lab. * Retaining staff. One of the most effective ways lab managers can lessen the impact of the personnel shortage is to retain their current work force. While we knew that perks such as scholarship and child care assistance programs would help to keep our technologists happy, efforts to implement these changes have been slow.

Nationwide, as the availability of qualified technologists and technicians continues to diminish, managers must find effective ways to encourage employee retention. Below are a few suggestions on how to dissuade employees from leaving:

Offer child care benefits. Between now and the year 2000, it is estimated that women will constitute 60% of the new work force entering the field.[1] Many of them will be mothers of young children. Providing safe, affordable child care for your employees can lead to both short- and long-term benefits for the lab. Not only does such a service alleviate employees' worries, leading to increased productivity, but it also helps to retain good people who might otherwise leave the field for a career math fewer demands and better scheduling. When one of our long-time employees had a baby, she requested a part-time position. Had we not accommodated her, we would have lost a valuable worker.

Some hospitals provide employees with child care centers on site or near the workplace, care for sick children, and financial assistance for child care. We do not offer on-site child care to our employees, but discounts for child care services are available through our human resources department.

Promote participative management. Considering the daily stresses associated with lab work, lab managers must listen attentively to the staff, encourage suggestions, and discuss problems. Involving employees in decision making and planning demonstrates that they are a vital part of the organization. This is particularly important for laboratorians, who often feel that their talents are not recognized and respected.

Provide benefits and opportunities. While technologists' salaries have seen a slight increase due to the shortage, they still are not in line with those of other careers requiring the same education. To encourage technologists to work the evening and night shifts, our lab offers monetary incentives. Employees who work 500 hours on either shift receive bonuses. In addition, our technologists have received increased shift differentials and salary adjustments to keep their salaries competitive with the rest of the market. * Continuous battle. For the first time in about two years, our technologist positions are all filled. This does not mean that we can sit back and relax. Low salaries, poor working conditions, high levels of stress, and a lack of recognition as professionals continue to result in attrition and difficult recruitment for our field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 49,000 new jobs for medical technologists by the year 2000.[2] Surely this indicates that the personnel shortage will be with us for quite some time.

For labs to survive the future, managers will be required to be more creative than ever before. We must constantly be aware of the factors contributing to the shortage and work to maintain a safe, efficient, motivated environment. Only then will we successfully recruit and retain the best professionals.

References [1.] Chusmir LH. Increasing women's job commitment: Some practical answers. Personnel January 1985; 63: 43. [2.] Mehne C. Surviving the shortage. MT Today. May 6, 1991; 1(3):8.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Medical Laboratory Observer Article Awards Contest: Honorable Mention; managing laboratory staff for evening shifts
Author:Fulger, Carol L.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Words:1938
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