All of the technologists quit… EVERY SINGLE ONE… within six months. That was my introduction to my new job as Director of the Histocompatibility Laboratory. Histocompatibility is a highly specialized, high complexity area of the laboratory and it requires a significant amount of on-call responsibilities. Fortunately, I am a hands-on director because I was left with only the laboratory manager and myself to do all of the routine work, all of the on call duties, as well as our regular responsibilities. Add to that the hiring and training of an entirely new staff. I learned the value of staff retention in a trial by fire.
Things are better these days, we are fully staffed and they are fully trained allowing me time to do things like attend professional meetings. When I meet colleagues I love to tell this story, because I inevitably get the response, “We are really struggling with retention right now too!” Keeping good, competent technologists in your laboratory is getting increasingly difficult. Here, we will discuss a few reasons why and offer some potential solutions.
"It’s an evolving world, and we must evolve along with it and adapt to meet the changing needs of our workforce"
In trying to understand this problem and the driving forces, we had a long discussion very early one morning. What became shockingly clear was that one of the primary reasons for losing staff is just sheer mobility. It seems that Millennial (born 1980-1994) and GenZ (born 1995-early 2000s) employees are just far more mobile, willing to pick up and move from city to city or state to state. To understand the motives behind this, it’s important to understand what’s happening in the background for these young employees.
First, they’re the most highly educated generation in American history. They went to college in record numbers and subsequently graduated with mountains of college debt – an average of over $20,000 per person. So they have a wealth of knowledge, they are resourceful, and they have an incentive to advance as quickly as possible. To them, “paying dues” is what they’ve been doing through years of education and debt. But don’t confuse that with an unwillingness to work; 70% of them work up to 20 hours or more at their side hustle each week.
So today’s employees are seeking, above all else, opportunity. They are more mobile, because they are willing to chase that opportunity. The key to keeping them around is to provide them with opportunity. Even if it’s incremental opportunity, having a proverbial ladder to climb is critical to keeping young employees engaged in their work and connected to their employer. It’s important to consider the strengths of each employee and craft opportunities for them that maximize those strengths. Invest in training and learning opportunities; this demonstrates to employees that you want them to grow; and young employees crave growth! In addition to providing training, it is important you also reward employees who take advantage of it. In our area, a new certification should be acknowledged and rewarded (financially!); otherwise, they will seek out a place that will. Additionally, one program that we’ve started at our institution that has had success is a mentoring program. We provided each new employee with a veteran “mentor” who was in a different specialty. This has helped the new employee learn the ropes and inspired a team first mentality.
Sadly, the reality of the clinical laboratory space is that there is limited room for advancement. There are only so many supervisor and manager positions available and, once in those roles, turnover tends to be low. There may just never be enough of a ladder to climb to keep young employees engaged. Which means that we as managers need to face the reality that ours may be evolving into a high turnover area. We may just have to accept this fate and get creative in planning and managing around it. One strategy that we have implemented is to hire above our budgeted FTEs at the time that new graduates are job hunting. We’ve experienced seeing a large pool of applicants around graduation time, which then tapers off throughout the year until graduation comes around again. We hire above our FTE needs in anticipation of losing 3-4 employees over the course of the winter, spring and summer. This allows us to train new employees when we are comfortably staffed for our workload and all employees are comfortable in their position before the attrition begins. Since this strategy was implemented, for the past two years we have been able to maintain our minimum staffing levels, even with the departure of several employees as anticipated. Of course, in order to be effective with these types of strategies you have to have systems in place. Systems for workflow and training new staff as well as SOPs need to be explicit and comprehensive.
We live in an evolving world. Gone are the days of an employee coming into the lab, putting the nose to the grindstone, and collecting a pay check for 30 years. Today’s employees want more; they want to grow and they want to make an impact. We, as laboratory managers, need to either find ways to provide meaningful growth opportunities for them, or we need to get really creative about how to make our systems work for us in an environment of constant staff turnover. The true answer is probably some sort of compromise between those two poles. It’s an evolving world, and we must evolve along with it and adapt to meet the changing needs of our workforce.