What is a Histotech Worth These Days?

By: Tim Morken

At some point every year the Histonet (http://lists.utsouthwestern.edu/mailman/listinfo/histonet) blows up with a discussion about pay for histotechs – usually revolving around how under-appreciated we are by whatever institution we are at, certified vs non-certified, etc. What people really want to know is: are we gaining or losing in the endless battle for respect.

I think it’s normal for people to blow off steam like this. Everyone wonders about how their situation compares with others and Histonet is such a diverse group that it offers a way to connect with the rest of the world. Of course, many, maybe most, histotechs are largely satisfied with what they do and what they get paid (though I’m sure no one would turn down a raise!). Really our work depends on them. They are satisfied to come to work, do a good job and get paid for it.

But the question remains, are histotechs gaining or losing?

Let’s look at our circumstances. Histology jobs are still almost invisible to the usual personnel supply routes – high schools and colleges - and would-be histotechs are still finding the field mostly by accident. They are still almost exclusively trained on the job rather than in school (for instance, there are only two histotech schools in California – the most populated state in the country- though online courses have helped). Most labs still do not require any kind of certification to do histology work, though many will require some level of college work. And college grads in the sciences are available in great numbers these days.

In California, where I work, openings are location-dependent. In the San Francisco Bay Area or the LA /San Diego area experienced histotechs who pop up looking for a job are usually hired very quickly by large service labs, large hospitals or biotech companies that pay very well. I can say that here at University of California San Francisco Medical Center many of our hospital histotechs came from our own research labs. But even here we are lucky to get half a dozen suitable applications within 6 months of posting a position. Outside of the large population areas a lab may not get any applications. Either there are no local techs available or out-of-area techs don’t want to move to rural or semi-rural areas.

Normally this would indicate that the pay is too low. But because a lab can hire untrained people and train them into the work, the pay will not rise nearly as fast as if we could only hire pre-trained or certified/licensed personnel. There is no movement to license histotechs in California or most other states, so that situation is unlikely to change.

The fact that histotechs do not do “testing” – that is they do not have the requirement of practicing independent judgment to enhance their standing and pay – means they don’t make the ultimate decisions and so are in the category of “service workers.” That limits the opportunities for advancement.

Some have expressed concern that adding educational requirements for ASCP certification in Histotechnology would lead to a shortage. But that does not seem to be happening, possibly because there is a surplus of people with 2 and 4-year degrees in the sciences. Another frequently-expressed concern is the aging histotech population would lead to many retirements and a shortage. That also does not seem to be happening. One reason is that people will work longer if the pay is good enough, but also over the last ten years people have experienced brutal economic conditions and no one is going to quit a good job if they don’t have to. Histotechnology is not a physically difficult job, so people can perform well into later years if they stay interested and engaged.

Unions usually enhance pay but for histotechs are only available at larger, usually public, institutions. That does not guarantee higher pay all around unless the union challenges the pay scale for the area. Then again, the institution itself may discover it needs to enhance pay to attract techs. Ten years ago UCSF was losing techs of all kinds to the large non-unionized biotech companies in the area that paid top dollar and so increased their pay to match. Many histotechs received very large raises at that time. That trickled down to even private labs that could not get experienced techs without the pay to match.

Finally, private service labs will naturally pay as low as possible to reduce costs. Service labs are growing and taking over many hospital systems. That consolidates labs and may reduce pay if they are cutthroat about it. However, some will pay more than the going rate to ensure a good workforce. Unfortunately I think that is the exception. I met one young woman who worked at a small private lab and had the problem of working for a pathologist who did not support her desire to work on her HT certification. His reasoning was that if she was successful then she would move to another lab that paid more for certified techs. There was obviously no intention on his part to pay a certified tech more!

Taking all this into consideration I think that pay for routine histotechs will continue to slowly rise but not as fast as it would if the supply was restricted to only well trained, licensed personnel as is the case for Medical Technologists. Increased pay for individuals will depend more on their own ambition than any institution they work at – either education for advancement or looking for other jobs at higher pay.

Histotechnology is a very broad field with many opportunities. Recognizing that and being willing to take advantage of the inherent rarity of histotechs is a very good reason to take control of your career and use every opportunity to learn and grow so you do not get caught in a pay trap.

Looking for a new career opportunity? Visit the NSH Career Center to see job openings in your area!

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