OML Graduates First Distance-Learning MTs

It’s the pay-off for a two-year program to recruit and train new laboratory staff

CEO SUMMARY: Faced with staffing shortages and a ready pool of B.S. graduates in the local community, two years ago, Oregon Medical Laboratories decided to use long-distance learning programs to recruit and train employees interested in earning certification as MTs and MLTs. This business strategy paid off. The first group of students has graduated and the next group is already at their studies.

TO INCREASE ITS POOL of skilled laboratory staff, Oregon Medical Laboratories (OML) recently graduated its first group of cyber-trained Medical Technologists (MTs) and Medical Laboratory Technicians (MLTs).

Three OML employees earned their MT certificates from the distance learning program at the Medical College of Georgia, located in Augusta. Another OML employee earned an MLT certificate from the distance learning program at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.

Business Strategy Validated

This validates a business strategy OML initiated two years ago. Faced with an inability to recruit enough MTs and MLTs to meet staffing needs, Oregon Medical Laboratories, based in Eugene, Oregon, launched a proactive program with the twin goals of recruiting interested and qualified employees, then helping them achieve MT and MLT certification through the use of long-distance training. (See TDR, June 16, 2003 and July 7, 2002.)

“OML employs about 200 MTs and MLTs,” stated Ran Whitehead, CEO of Oregon Med Labs. “Because the average age of our MTs is nearly 50, it won’t be long before retirements further thin our ranks. We studied our staffing trends over the last five years and identified a pattern. Assuming OML maintains both its current rate of growth and its current rate of employee turnover, we project a need for ten new MTs each year. That study motivated us to get serious about proactively recruiting new employees, then helping them earn certification as MTs and MLTs.

“With the University of Oregon here in Eugene, there is a sizeable pool of college graduates with degrees in chemistry and biology. Many want to stay in this area, but can’t find jobs. We saw an opportunity to match those people with jobs inside OML,” explained Whitehead.

“Because there were no MT or MLT training programs in our area, we decided to utilize long-distance learning programs to help our new hires achieve professional certification in laboratory medicine.”

“That’s why our business strategy was organized around two primary goals,” stated Judith McClain, OML’s Education Coordinator. “One, we wanted to fill staff openings in our lab. Two, we wanted to create a better career path for existing employees and any students attracted into the distance learning program.

“We looked for accredited distance learning programs that didn’t require actual ‘campus time’ that would be difficult for employed students,” she added. “For example, I learned that Medical College of Georgia (MCG) has offered an online distance learning program for the last 12 years. The distance learning program at Weber University in Ogden requires the MT candidate to be an MLT.

Learning Via The Internet

“With distance learning, our interested employees were able to go right into MCG’s MT program, leading to a second B.S. degree,” McClain observed. “Even if candidates already have a B.S., we found that a second Bachelor of Science degree is appealing to most of them. Also, Medical College of Georgia is developing a long-distance Master’s program. To add further appeal to enroll in a distance learning program, OML offers incentives such as tuition reimbursement and scholarship money to current employees.

“Now that we have graduated the first group of students trained via distance-learning programs, OML is expanding the program,” commented McClain. “A new group of students started this fall, using our new dedicated training room. Their clinical rotation classes will be kept small and we want to start a new batch of students every year,” she stated. “That means we will conduct first-and second-year programs simultaneously.

“We are quite excited about the momentum created by this program,” observed McClain. “Its success at helping us attract quality employees has caught the attention of other laboratories across Oregon. In Medford, Oregon, Medford Medical Center is now using the MCG program.”

Tapping Local Resources To Fund Training Efforts

ALL SORTS OF POSITIVE SYNERGIES OCCUR when laboratories join forces with their local academic institutions and workforce development agencies to develop training opportunities for Medical Technologist (MT) and Medical Laboratory Technician (MLT) certification. It is the same model that has proven effective in addressing nursing shortages.

“We partnered with Lane Workforce Partnership (LWP) to form a consortium involving other local healthcare employers,” stated Judith McClain, Education Coordinator at Oregon Medical Laboratories. “Together we identified distance-learning options and coordinated the technology and infrastructure to support a program.”

LWP is a private, non-profit workforce development organization that assists businesses with recruiting, training, and retaining employees. It also helps individuals find employment and advance in their careers. “Many local governments have similar initiatives,” noted McClain. “Any laboratory interested in developing a distance learning program should contact their local workforce development program.”

“In putting together our business model, we looked at our costs for recruitment,” McClain explained. “We were able to shift some of the advertising, bonus, and orientation dollars to help fund the distance-learning program. We determined that it costs OML approximately $20,000 to replace one MT. We did not have to crunch many numbers to recognize the rapid return on investment of a distance-learning program.

“For additional funding, we turned to the consortium. OML and LWP jointly received a workforce development grant from Lane County’s Economic Development Standing Committee. The purpose of the grant was to assess and train emerging and incumbent workers for entry-level jobs in medical laboratory technology and allied health careers. Our proposed distance learning program fit perfectly. OML provided clinical rotation opportunities for the students, as well as mentoring and scholarships.”

Oregon Educators

The interest of OML and other labs in distance learning has been noticed by educators in Oregon. Portland Community College (PCC) is establishing a pilot program for MLTs in collaboration with community colleges to coordinate its course work to insure that all course pre-requisites and credits are transferable. OML, along with two other Oregon hospitals, will provide the essential clinical rotation opportunities for the students. PCC hopes to collaborate with the Medical College of Georgia, so the MLT students from PCC can seamlessly be accepted into advanced MT courses at MCG in order to obtain their Bachelors’ degree in MT from the Medical College of Georgia.

“PCC wants its online distance learning program to be a resource for rural hospital labs, as well as for OML,” stated McClain. “This approach is feasible for hospital labs with sufficient testing volume and a test menu broad enough to meet the clinical rotation component.”

Unexpected Benefits

OML realized a number of benefits from their online distance learning program—some expected, some not. “This first class represents significant progress in meeting our staffing needs,” stated McClain. “It has also contributed to a noticeable improvement in employee satisfaction.

“One unexpected benefit has been a new sense of job enhancement among existing staff as they teach and train students in clinical rotation,” she noted. “Another benefit is the continued employment of a staff member here who enrolls in the program. These are employees who do their studies via a long-distance training program, do their clinical rotation requirements in our laboratory, and continue to perform job duties for OML. There’s no break in employment and it’s a win-win program for all stakeholders.”

The success of the OML and MCG programs proves that online distance learning is a cost-effective strategy for developing a qualified laboratory workforce. As it did two years ago, THE DARK REPORT continues to predict that such programs will continue to expand across the country. If there is a drawback, it is the fact that long-distance learning programs, by design, require two or more years to produce MTs and MLTs. For that reason, laboratories interested in this approach should move expeditiously.

Grant Money Sources

Further, laboratories should explore the range of economic development grants and funding programs designed to boost employment in their community. Oregon Medical Laboratory received grant money from the county economic development agency to help fund its MT and MLT training programs. Across the country, many laboratories have tapped similar sources of money to supplement their employee recruitment and training programs.

Not surprisingly, the growing interest in long-distance learning programs is encouraging more colleges and universities to develop and offer such pro- grams. This reflects advances in computer technology and Internet-based applications. Whether these solutions are effective in solving the long-term shortage of MTs and MLTs remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, they are useful in helping laboratories meet their staffing needs.

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