Making a diagnosis is one of the toughest things a doctor does. No matter how well-informed they are in their specialty, symptoms -- or more maddeningly, their absence -- can be ambiguous or misleading. That's why lab tests are so helpful, providing physical evidence to guide the doctor. Some laboratory staff are specialists, but most of the work is done by generalist laboratory technicians. Certification for technicians isn't mandatory, but it can be a career builder.
Laboratory technicians do most of the routine day-to-day work in a medical lab. For example, when samples come into the lab, it's usually the technicians who sign for them, check that the paperwork is accurate and store them according to proper procedures. Those samples might be blood or urine, or pretty much anything else that might dribble, flow or sneeze out of your body when you're sick. Technicians prepare the samples for various types of testing, by dissolving them, treating them with chemicals or turning them into microscope slides. They run some tests themselves, while more senior staff do the tough ones.
Certification is voluntary, but if you're a technician, it's usually worth pursuing. Earning a credential shows potential employers that you're competent and have a professional attitude. Technicians are certified by The American Association of Bioanalysts, American Medical Technologists and American Society for Clinical Pathology which all administer versions of the Medical Laboratory Technician certification. To qualify you need a combination of formal training and hands-on experience in laboratory work, and you also have to pass a certification exam. Once you're certified, you have to keep up your certification through continuing education.
Training and Eligibility
For most new laboratory technicians, that formal training comes as a two-year associate degree at the local vocational or community college. There are some other ways to get started, and you can still learn entirely on the job. Some labs or training hospitals have their own in-house training programs, and universities sometimes offer the training on its own or as part of a four-year degree. The U.S. military has its own training program for laboratory technicians, similar to the civilian versions. If you're seriously interested in the career, you should be able to find the training you need.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates that jobs for laboratory technicians will increase by 15 percent between 2010 and 2020. The average for all occupations is 14 percent, so that's not especially high. However, that number's probably low in real life. A 2011 survey by the American Society for Clinical Pathology found that most laboratories already have staffing shortages, ranging from 5.14 percent to 11.6 percent depending on the department. Add those to the projections, and it's a lot of jobs. There's opportunity for advancement as well, either by rising to a supervisor position or by going back to school and becoming a laboratory technologist.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Clinical Laboratory Technician/Medical Laboratory Technician
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Medical and Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians
- ASCP Board of Certification: U.S. Certification
- American Association of Bioanalysts: MLT(AAB) – Medical Laboratory Technician (Generalist) Certification
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.