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Part III: tradition in transition; Can technology bridge the personnel gap?

iPods, video games, and computer mahjongg were not the first types of technology to which we who are "graying" were exposed. What passed for technology "back when" was thrown at us with no on-the-job basic training. In 1961, the pandemonium that ensued when the new IBM Selectrics were installed in our legal secretarial pool, for example, was actually funny. Rather than traditional keys, this typewriter had a "bouncing ball" that moved back and forth across the page. Instead of a return handle at the upper right, a secretary used her right little pinkie to press the return key. I could not count the times that first week when secretaries using these "Selectrics" would reach up to throw a phantom carriage return, having forgotten it had been replaced by a key. Most of them ended up flinging themselves halfway across their desks, knocking ashtrays askew. (Yes, people smoked at work ... yes, at their desks.)


Shortly thereafter, when the newly invented word processor was installed, the technician handed over a thick instruction book and said, "Here are the directions." We were left, once again, to find enough "tips" among those pages to do our most basic tasks on the new machinery. It took all we had to figure out the convoluted instructions, but we did. Most of the crew collapsed into tears at one point or another (and some of us still do). Technology was not pretty; but, at least--we consoled one another--carbon paper copies had finally bit the dust.

The episode brings to mind the most celebrated psychologist since Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner, who once said, "The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do." Last month, we heard from our informal survey participants that younger lab workers let the machines to do the testing, while they fail to engage in related critical thinking and ignore important manual procedures--the "quantity vs. quality" debate. This month, we approach the subject of whether or not the use of more automated instrumentation will successfully bridge the gap between replacing retiring MTs and MLTs with incoming graduates. There is sort-of good news, and then there is a little bad news. Let us look first at the bad so we can end on a happier note.

Technology takes techs out of the lab

As the older members of this professional community begin to move into their "golden years," what can we expect to experience in the way of a more automated medical lab? Medical technologists are often very analytical and organized. Their skills are easily transferable to other areas outside the lab, says one of our survey participants, "especially in the area of project management, where many of them finally settle."

Her story is: Since many hospitals do not always have the manpower or expertise available to focus on software implementation or a major upgrade that may take up to a year or more, vendors or consulting resources frequently provide the bulk of the staff. Currently, some new systems are growing so fast that these companies sub-contract resources to fully meet their customers' needs. If hospital or lab staff members witness or participate to some degree in that implementation, they are exposed to and sometimes discover new and more lucrative opportunities with vendors and consulting companies. An MT who now consults in the information systems (IS) world, she explains, "With the advent of newer and more versatile ISs in the lab, adventurous techs--savvy about technology--are moving to work with software vendors and consulting companies doing system implementations." She claims this is true not only for the younger generation but also for some of the boomers.

Techs will not run the lab

One lab manager at an urban hospital theorized that, with the advent of more point-of-care testing, some of which is handled by the nursing staff, along with waivers for those types of instruments from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)--there will likely be less need for med techs in the future. This lab leader believes that, ultimately:

1) Manufacturers will be challenged with making instruments more operator-friendly and more or less foolproof;

2) CMS and other oversight agencies will probably be behind the power curve regarding personnel requirements; and

3) Many labs will be operating with one or two certified med techs who are overseeing the daily work performed on these instruments by minimally qualified staff.

With the chorus of Doubting Thomases we have heard from lately, the question then arises: How qualified will those two certified med techs truly be? Every change seems to beg another question. This may well be true, so let us take a look at the sort-of good news.

Labs are not alone

Like the shift from agrarian society to industrial society, the shift from Age of Industry to the Information Age has had and will continue to have its "ups and downs." A combination of factors, including globalization, is currently reconfiguring the medical laboratory, as well as other segments of the healthcare marketplace, like nursing. But we are not alone. Other industries like aerospace, manufacturing, and education have been experiencing staffing problems similar to those in the medical laboratory.

In a nutshell, the huge business downsizing trend a few years ago to become "lean and mean" has now created a precarious situation. Large numbers of current employees are leaving the workplace for retirement. They are leaving a vacuum of "experiential and institutional" knowledge* that has taken many years for them to accumulate. Because the baby-boomer generation, in the main, was dedicated to one employer for a lifetime career, this is a valuable storehouse. NASA knows what a lack of experience can mean--a couple of failed missions to the tune of several millions of dollars. [I do not want to even think of what such flubs might mean in a nuclear power plant; however, I digress.]

This looming "brain drain" began in 2003 and will peak by 2013. The nuclear industry is poised to lose 28% of some 60,000 employees during this period, while the petroleum industry will lose some 60% of its workforce by 2010. Projections from two years ago were that by 2008, 50% of government workers would be eligible to leave their posts.*

There also will soon be a shortage of skilled "blue collar" workers; electricians, plumbers, and auto mechanics see no apprentices being trained to replace them. Craftsmen find young people are more interested in a large salary than they are in learning a trade. The same thing is happening in our prisons where applications for prison guards are not as appealing as they once were. There are no replacements in the "pipeline" who can bring the same level of expertise with them. And despite the fact that there are, at least, incoming employees, the turnover rate for the Generations X and Y--those "younger" workers who have, in comparison to their parents, a "freelance" mentality when it comes to work--is estimated to be around 20%.*

So, what are other industries doing to prepare for the coming manpower disaster ... the day when more than half the workforce goes home for good? According to an expert, companies that spent years downsizing are now having to look at the "three Rs" crucial to building a continuum in every workplace as we approach the unprecedented exodus of baby boomers from the workplace: Retirement, Retention, and Recruiting. The latter is something many organizations have not done since they got lean, so learning this skill is necessary for companies competing for savvy employees in today's work environment.*

What are others are doing?

Now, for a little good news: The Platte River Power Authority in Colorado, faced with losing 40% of its employees to retirement by 2010, has implemented in-house programs for developing apprentices and maintenance-level employees from its remaining ranks, as well as forming an "academy" with a focus on training managers and supervisors.*

Healthcare and several other industries are looking at importing foreign workers to fill their personnel needs, despite the fact that, according to experts, the personnel shortage is a global problem, particularly in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan.*

Two years ago, there were 1 million workers age 75+ in America; 1.4 million between 70-74; and 2.7 million aged 65-69. Meanwhile, 3.5 million baby boomers left their jobs between 2001 and 2005.* Retaining older workers can resolve some problems, but those who want to continue working may now be restricted because of their retirement/pension income as to how many hours they can work and/or how much they can earn.

Technology can solve some of the problems; but, as evidenced in these few examples, people, their knowledge, and how they use that knowledge are at least an equal part of the equation, if not more so. It seems that the medical laboratory is not the only workplace that suffers from a lack of warm bodies. Realizing that the personnel shortage is not only occurring as American boomers retire but also encompasses other European and Asian countries means that we can perhaps learn from them what solutions they are implementing to prepare for what may prove to be a bigger problem than we first thought it was.

Personally, I wonder--as did the author of a 1978 article on technology**--if "our ... almost religious reliance upon the power of science and technology to forever ensure the progress of our society might blind us to some very real problems which cannot be solved by science and technology."

Old B.F. Skinner might agree.

Carren Bersch

* "A Changing American Workplace as Boomers Retire" on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation aired on Sept. 21, 2005, and featured guests David Delong, a management consultant and researcher at MIT's AgeLab; Dave Green, HR manager for Colorado's Platte River Power Authority; and Bruce Tulgan of RainmakerThinking, a research-management training firm.

** Robert Strauz-Hupe in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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Title Annotation:technological applications in laboratory thereby replacing laboratory technicians
Author:Bersch, Carren
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2007
Previous Article:Federal health policy 2007: opportunities and challenges.
Next Article:Measuring productivity.

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