By Nicholas Wyman | Forbes | October 10, 2015
About two years ago I was staying at a hotel with my family in Wayne, Pennsylvania, just northwest of Philadelphia. My wife and I woke at 4 a.m. to a parent’s worst nightmare: my three-year-old son, James, gasping for breath, and turning blue. I called 911 while my wife carried James down to the hotel lobby. In minutes, an ambulance with an emergency medical technician (EMT) and a paramedic roared up to the hotel. The two medics diagnosed an attack of the croup, quickly stabilized James and got him to the hospital, where he made a full recovery.
I never got to thank the people who saved James’ life that night. But in the course of my research I’ve met and interviewed other emergency medical personnel with the same skills and dedication. I learned about the paths they took to their jobs – usually a combination of specialized technical courses (Associate’s Degree or Certificate programs) and on-the-job training. None of the people I talked to had started out with a traditional four-year college degree, and all were making a good living in meaningful and fulfilling careers.
I started wondering about other jobs in the healthcare field that are as patient-focused and rewarding as EMT, and don’t require a bachelor’s degree. I had a chance to find out about some when I spoke with Dr. Bryan Albrecht, President of Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin. Gateway has a significant number of Associate Degree and Certificate programs that lead to jobs in the healthcare industry, which the college and its business partners have identified as one with high future job growth.
One field Dr. Albrecht mentioned particularly intrigued me: Surgical Technology.
Surgical technologists work in the operating room with doctors and nurses, maintaining the sterile field, monitoring a patient’s vital signs and keeping track of instruments (if this sounds easy, consider that an average of 300 instruments are required for a large-cavity operation, and up to 600 for longer surgeries). The surgical technologist prepares the operating theatre, prepares the patient, hands the surgeon the correct instruments, and makes sure every sponge or other foreign object is accounted for when the final stitch is closed.
Most people think you need years of advanced schooling at the highest levels to work in an operating room. To those who don’t learn or test well in a classroom – not to mention those unable or unwilling to shoulder the considerable financial burden of a medical or even nursing school education – work of this kind seems out of reach. But here is a field that prepares people for critical roles in the operating room – helping people when they are at their most helpless – with just a focused, two-year training program.
Dr. Albrecht told me the program is especially popular with young people. “Although the average age of our students is 31 – adults doing technical training for specific jobs – most of the people in the surgical technologist program come straight from high school.”
High school students find out about surgical technology and other technical health fields through Gateway’s outreach program, College Connection. The college sends its representatives into high school classrooms to educate students about in-demand, well-paying jobs in the local community, and the students then come to Gateway to tour the campus and state-of-the-art labs, which include four surgical suites and a simulation lab. “They’re as good as the hospital labs,” notes Dr. Albrecht.
The end result is that students who once thought healthcare jobs were limited to either doctor or nurse are exposed to a diverse network of well-paying careers. Starting pay for a surgical technologist is around $43,350 – a good salary for someone who may be just two years out of high school. But this is often just the first step in a long, upwardly mobile career.
Surgical technologists might take additional courses and training to go into specialty nursing areas. Or they might enroll in pre-med courses. Gateway has articulation agreements with local universities that help students make a smooth transition to a four-year college if they choose.
Says Dr Albrecht, “We’ve been expanding pathways, trying to create a clear direction for students from K-12 to 2- or 4-year colleges.”
My personal experience with highly trained medical personnel showed me how vital these fields are, and how rewarding they can be for those who practice them. You don’t need a four-year college degree (plus four years of medical school, and three years of residency!) to become a critical player in the healthcare field. You can get there via specialized training, focused dedication and a deep commitment to helping people. The opportunities are there, and growing.
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