Help wanted: Surgical technology a growing career field

MARQUETTE – As the Baby Boomer generation ages, thus requiring more medical care, jobs in the medical field will see some of the largest increases over the next 10 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

One of those jobs, listed by the bureau as likely growing by 19 percent between 2010 and 2020, is surgical technologist.

Surgical techs typically work in hospitals, preparing operating rooms for surgery, sterilizing equipment, preparing patients for surgery and assisting surgeons and nurses during surgical procedures. Their median annual income, according to the BLS, is $39,920.

Surgical techs must be certified in their field, and In Marquette, that can be done by going through Northern Michigan University’s surgical tech program, which is celebrating its 20th year of operation this year.

Though the program has previously only been offered as an associate’s degree, the university recently launched a surgical tech bachelor’s degree.

The first bachelor’s degree recipient graduated last spring. Another is scheduled to receive his degree in December.

“The four-year degree is new enough that I don’t think many people know we offer it,” said Rick Lopez, director of the surgical tech program at Northern, in a news release. “It’s mainly for management purposes and the ability to climb the ladder and be on a more equal level with nurses. You can’t get a higher degree unless you shift to a different field. With a bachelor’s, someone could manage a surgery center, do research, assist oral surgeons and veterinarians or work in sales. It can move them in a different direction than staff technician.”

According to NMU, Lopez has directed the program since 2009 after working at Marquette General Hospital and serving with the 107th Battalion of the National Guard, including its deployment to Iraq.

“The 20th anniversary is a testament to those who came before me,” he said. “Kim Dunlap started surgical technology at Northern. Sandy Kontio helped her with the clinical portion and then ran the program for many years after Kim left. When Sandy retired, I was appointed. It began as a one-year certificate and expanded to a two-year associate degree. In 2009, we began offering a bachelor’s in clinical health science with an emphasis in surgical technology.”

Lopez said most of the course work can be completed online by those working in the field. Beyond classes, the bachelor’s degree requires advanced cardiac life support training, two years minimum experience as a surgical tech, passing the national boards and shadowing a manager in a clinical setting for two weeks.

“Our program would not have reached the 20-year milestone without support from the regional medical community,” Lopez said. “At MGH, we’ve been lucky to have Dr. (Craig) Coccia as our medical director and a strong support group of doctors, nurses and fellow technicians. We’re a feeder program for the hospital, so it’s in their interest as well to have a good selection of surgical techs. We also have agreements with most U.P. hospitals and other facilities in lower Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Virginia and California to place our students for their required two-credit clinical practice internship.”

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.