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Temporary technologists: a solution for your lab?

A former medical technologist launched an employment agency that is helping ease the staffing crunch and opening up

new opportunities for laboratorians. A partial answer to the nation

wide medical technologist shortage is the large body of former technologists seeking to reenter the laboratory field. Consider all those mothers who left the lab to rear children or recent retirees who might be happy to work a couple of days a week. The problem is finding them.

That's what our agency, Temporary Tech, is all about. We maintain a current roster of 32 medical technologists who fill in when any of our 85 clinical and corporate clients find themselves temporarily short-staffed. We also list medical laboratory technicians when we can find them and 56 research technicians. Those in the latter group have degrees in biology or chemistry but lack the additional medical technology training and certification.

In the past four years, we have placed certified medical technologists in more than 500 assignments, lasting from one day to one year. Unlike per diems, who work as private contractors, the personnel we send out are employed by our agency. We withhold taxes, carry worker's compensation and liability insurance, and guarantee the quality of the technologists' work.

The inspiration for this service came when a technologist in a 2.5-FTE outpatient laboratory had an emergency appendectomy while another technologist was out of town on vacation. As the supervisor and sole remaining staff member, I spent hours on the phone trying to get a replacement.

None of the employment agencies knew what a technologist did, much less where to find one. I finally recruited a friend who had just moved back into town. Long after the crisis passed, I still wondered why no one had ever started an agency for temporary laboratory help-it seemed like such a good idea.

It took four years to make the leap, but a colleague and I finally did, and Temporary Tech opened its doors in December 1984. This type of venture requires a fulltime commitment. Yet, despite a favorable reception, I held onto my laboratory job until the following October. Once I made that commitment, business took off.

There is an untapped reserve of technologists ready to work an occasional shift. Consider the following:

$Evelyn retired last year. She misses the day-to-day patient contact and would like to come back to the laboratory.

%Fred, a 10-year laboratory veteran, has just received an M.B.A. degree. He is looking for the "perfect" job that will draw on both his business and clinical expertise.

Jan, a mother of teenagers, would like to reenter the laboratory field. So much has changed, however, that she is not sure where she fits in.

$Alex gave up his job as a clinical chemistry instructor when his wife relocated. Now he must start over in a new city.

Our files are full of such stories. We make sure the individuals are well qualified, and we match them with positions that fit their needs. For example:

$A hematology laboratory becomes understaffed when two of its 10 technologists go on maternity leave at the same time.

$An outpatient oncology center is looking for an expert phlebotomist to fill in while it recruits a permanent technician.

A hospital laboratory, in the midst of installing a computer system, requires personnel to operate its chemistry instruments while the regular staff undergoes computer training.

MA diagnostics firm is introducing a microbiology test kit and needs a medical technologist to handle the extra workload in its quality assurance laboratory.

Our agency provides skilled laboratorians for temporary assignments in a 75-mile radius encompassing Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, N.C. Temporary assignments run from one day for vacation coverage to a full year when a laboratory receives funding for a major research project.

Two of us in the office, former MTs, handle all the marketing and placements, while a third MT comes in part time to help on interviews and phone calls. The fourth staff member takes care of billing and the payroll and runs the office. When there is a particularly heavy workload, we hire help from our own roster.

Much of our success can be attributed to a systematic approach to screening and interviewing job applicants. We advertise regularly in local newspapers, shopper guides, and weekly publications listing events in the area.

The ads are very specific: "Medical technologist needed for short-term assignment in hospital chemistry lab. Must be certifled." A phone number is listed, but we ask applicants to send a resume to our post office box. The staff screens each resume for appropriate education and experience, then malls those that qualify an application form. The completed forms are reviewed, and interviews are scheduled with applicants who meet our standards.

The interview lasts about an hour. We start by asking about the applicant's plans for permanent employment. (If that is indeed the goal, temporary assignments enable a person to shop around.) Then we discuss the applicant's experience and preferences in laboratory work. We ask about ability and willingness to perform venipuncture and skill on different instruments and procedures (Figure 1).

Self-ratings for instruments and procedures are on a scale of 1 to 5. Warning bells go off when someone who claims to be a 5 in one or more areas doesn't know the answer to follow-up questions we ask. Most medical technologists, however, do not misrepresent their qualifications.

We also have developed an intuition about people over a period of time. For example, if we think that someone is difficult to deal with, chances are that the client will also. When in doubt, we just let the person talk. Sooner or later, something unintended will come out.

We like to ask about the worst mistake one has ever made on the job. The response is very important. Will the applicant admit to being less than perfect? More important, did he or she learn anything from the error'?

Finally, we go over our agency's policies and guidelines. We explain how payroll is handled, how to fill out time sheets, what to do if injured on the job, and

where to call if it is impossible to come in to work.

After the interview, we contact the three work-related references listed on the application form. Normally this is done by mail, but if there is a pressing need for an applicant with certain qualifications, the check is conducted by telephone.

In addition to those who make our active roster, some laboratorians are listed in an inactive file or a pending file. The inactive group consists of individuals who have completed all the paperwork, gone through the interview, and received a favorable reference report but do not wish to work just yet. When they are ready, they ask us to activate their file. Laboratorians in the pending category have good credentials but highly specialized skills that are not in demand every day. When the call does come for such a skill, we turn to one of these individuals.

Our client marketing consists of information packets mailed to laboratory managers, followed by a personal visit. We work by appointment only-no cold calls. Although many contacts prefer to wait until a need arises, the literature at least lets them know that the agency is ready to serve.

Prospective clients were skeptical at first. It took a lot of effort to erase the "lab girls" stereotype along with the misconception that temporary agencies deal only with clerical workers.

A key selling point is that our agency handles all of the employee recruiting and scheduling. When a client calls, we note the name of the organization, phone number, contact person, and the type of assignment. We discuss the duration of the job, the days and hours that must be covered, dress code, and parking arrangements (a big concern in our area). When an assignment involves complex responsibilities or is likely to last longer than two months, we strongly advise the client to interview the technologist (see Figure 11 for the employment worksheet used by clients).

In matching technologists with laboratories, technical ability is essential, but personalities and work preferences receive equal consideration. For example, we will not place a shy technologist in a clinic where there is constant patient contact.

No technologist is ever pressured to accept a job, and there are no black marks for turning one down. We merely describe the assignment and let the individual decide.

Our agency pays medical technologists $10 to $12 an hour. This range is in line with the area's hospital laboratory salaries, which we monitor in semiannual surveys. We try to avoid overtime. If a hospital needs someone for more than 40 hours a week, we pay the employee time and a half and bill the hospital accordingly . In cases of chronic overtime, we counsel clients to bring in another temporary part-timer. (Moonlighting employees are held to a maximum of 20 additional hours per week. We also make sure their primary employer is aware of the situation.)

Obviously we charge clients more than we pay our technologists. A survey of local temporary agencies showed a markup of 45 to 75 per cent for clerical workers. This sounds high, but it takes a 35 per cent markup just to cover operating expenses and overhead plus the payment for Social Security . Our profit margin runs from 20 to 40 per cent, depending on the placement.

Our agency is committed to helping former technologists return to the bench-and these individuals are needed more than ever before in today's understaffed laboratories. There is much laboratory talent available, particularly among women who put careers on hold to take care of their children. Recently retired technologists are also good candidates for temporary work. We have steered some former technologists to a reentry course offered in conjunction with the medical laboratory technician program at a local community college.

We may expand our geographical coverage, and to that end, we have been scouting cities within 120 miles of Durham. Another goal is to expand the benefits we offer employees. As the agency picks up more long-term assignments, we are seriously considering offering health insurance along with some form of paid time off. We currently pay for employees;'liability insurance premiums after they complete their first year with the company.

The temporary market is definitely growing, but I should point out that this type of venture won't succeed everywhere. I think it works best in a metropolitan area with several hospitals, health care-related industries, and at least one major university medical center. A medical school is a definite plus. This guarantees a large transient population of students and spouses, many of whom are health care professionals looking for work. Incidentally, I doubt that our agency would be able to survive in a heavily unionized health care community.

We have grown by recognizing a need and filling it. The employee and the client benefit from each transaction, and that makes it doubly satisfying for us.
COPYRIGHT 1988 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:DeLuca, Roberta Mitchell
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:company profile
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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