After two schools close their HTM-related academic programs, educators contemplate what to do next

By Chris Hayhurst

First, the good news: If you’re about to graduate from an accredited HTM program and are looking for work as a BMET, you couldn’t have picked a better time to do so. The economy is strong and hospitals are hiring. There are jobs to be had, and they pay pretty well.

The bad news? You may be part of a dying breed. “Unfortunately,” notes John Noblitt, MAEd, CBET, “Education has an inverse relationship with the economy. So we’re seeing lots of jobs, and the market is really good, but now that’s started to impact our academic programs.”

Noblitt should know. As the BMET program director at North Carolina’s Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute (CCC&TI), he’s recruited, taught, and doled out degrees to hundreds of students over the years. And while around 22 new HTM professionals graduated from CCC&TI a few years ago, this year that number will be closer to 10. “Almost everyone who graduates is hired within the field,” he says. “That’s not the problem at all.”

The issue as he sees it, Noblitt explains, tends to be on the intake side of things: Fewer students are choosing to enroll, and those who do may not be prepared for the rigors of the technical classes and often leave the program before finishing.

After all, he says, when the economy is hot, “people don’t need to go to school to get a job; they just go right to work” wherever they can get it. And when most prospective students have never heard of HTM, much less given thought to making it their career, that makes recruiting for his program even harder. “We try,” Noblitt says, “but it’s an uphill battle.”

A Spate of School Closures

Noblitt’s not alone in his assessment of the state of HTM education. At Scranton, Pa.-based Johnson College, for instance, where Doug Hampton serves as department chair of the school’s biomedical equipment technology program, the graduating class has shrunk from 17 to seven over the last three years.

“It’s getting harder and harder to attract people,” Hampton says, noting that next year’s senior class (It’s a two-year program.) will have six students if all freshmen return.

Like Noblitt, Hampton says the economy is one possible culprit; and also like Noblitt, he sees a general unwillingness among many prospective students to consider possible careers outside of the local area. Despite the glut of opportunities for HTM pros nationwide, “the job market around here for entry-level biomeds is tough because of our program,” he says. “There might be two or three openings in any given year, and then everyone else has to leave” in order to get a job in the field.

Hampton says he’s able to convince some that the career is worth moving for, but he’s also seen many change their minds mid-semester and decide they’d rather leave the program than leave northeast Pennsylvania.

“We have a really good program, going about 35 years,” but he’s worried about its future, he says. “I don’t think the school would be quick to get rid of it. But I also don’t know that we can stay open if we don’t find a way to turn things around.”

Recent announcements from other schools with similar programs show that Hampton’s concerns may not be unfounded. In 2016, for example, Brown Mackie College decided to close 22 of its 26 campuses nationwide, including 11 that offered HTM-related degrees; and at DeVry University the news was the same: It would soon do away with its biomedical engineering technology degree program at seven of the 13 campuses at which it was offered.

The latest closure, at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Mo., was announced in early March. A letter the community college released explaining the decision noted its BMET program had “experienced unsustainably low enrollments” and was about to lose funding from a federal grant that supported the instructor’s salary. State budget cuts were also cited as a reason for the program’s impending closure.

“This is a reputable program,” laments Barbara Christe, PhD, associate professor and program director of healthcare engineering technology management at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). “And Brown Mackie and DeVry, while they’re for-profit institutions, their HTM programs have been around for years” and are major feeders of trained professionals to healthcare facilities around the country.

When she looks around at the schools that are still standing—IUPUI’s, those left at DeVry, a four-year bachelor’s program at East Tennessee State, and a few others—“it really is alarming,” she says.

Christe reveals that she recently received a forwarded email from a clinical-engineering manager at a hospital “who was up in arms” about one of the closures. “He was quite upset, and I agree with what he wrote,” she says. “He was wondering where he was going to find qualified people.”

Navigating the Hurdles

Unfortunately, Christe adds, if HTM hiring trends continue at their current pace, that clinical engineer’s question might be buried for some time. “I think the biggest problem right now is that many HTM employers will take anyone they can get.”

She recalls a “future forum” she attended a few years ago, where employers said they hired based on “who has the most teeth,” or “who has the least-offensive tattoos.” Christe says she’s sure they were speaking tongue-in-cheek, “but it’s not a good sign when you’re hearing things like that.”

Eventually, Christe explains, the other shoe must drop: Employers will see their applicant pools shrink further until one day they realize that there are few left to hire, and at that point the pendulum could swing in a different direction. “The 3,000 hospitals in the country might finally step up and say ‘we need clinical engineers; we need academic programs,’” and join together in a marketing effort that promotes HTM as a great career.

Schools would then presumably join the rally as well, adding muscle to their admissions departments to pull in the students required to sustain their programs.

But even then, Christe says, there will be other issues, including the fact that major manufacturers are unlikely to help with any rebound.

“The thing is, if we’re going to fill our programs and expand our academic offerings, we need support,” she says. “Other disciplines typically have backing in the form of advertising or scholarships” from industry players who stand to gain from a vibrant educational pipeline. But the HTM service model doesn’t work that way, she notes.

The big manufacturers with the money to spend—“don’t necessarily want these programs because when you don’t have educational programs, you don’t have enough technicians,” Christe says. “And if a hospital doesn’t have enough technicians, who does it have to call when its equipment needs repair?” The answer, of course, is manufacturers—“so they’re unlikely to be big supporters of higher-ed.”

Christe’s colleague, Patricia Fox, chair of the American Society for Engineering Education’s Engineering Technology Council and a clinical assistant professor at IUPUI, agrees that more industry involvement would make selling a career in HTM to future students easier for academic programs. But she also thinks (and again concurs with Christe) that there’s room for gains elsewhere, which may also help the cause.

“In some states, they’ve been eliminating engineering technology programs and then increasing their engineering programs,” as if the two disciplines were one and the same, she says. That—combined with the fact that in many facilities “the hiring is done by HR people who may not know the difference between the two either”—may make finding a solution relatively simple.

“It’s all misunderstanding and misinterpretation,” Fox says. “I think we need to do a better job of explaining what engineering technology education is,” and when it comes to HTM, “point out that these are hands-on programs with graduates who are ready to get right to work.”

A Matter of Marketing

One organization that is doing just that is AAMI. “AAMI’s been working really hard to beef up their outreach,” Christe says, pointing to the group’s “I am HTM” website (www.iamhtm.com) as just one example of their ongoing campaign.

That site includes a slew of resources for future biomeds and industry stakeholders alike, from fact cards recruiters can use in presentations about HTM to an FAQ page with answers to questions like “What is considered an HTM profession?” and “How does HTM interact with information technology [professionals]?”

Christe reveals that she uses “I am HTM” and other AAMI offerings “quite a bit” in her own recruiting. “The problem is, the students who come to me saying that they’re thinking about this major have never seen that website,” she says. “So the question is: Is this enough and is it reaching the right audiences?”

For now, Christe adds, her biggest recruiting tool is “the folks who are already in the field who talk about their jobs to anybody who will listen.” Most of her students, that is, “know somebody—their neighbor or their friend’s father is an HTM technician, and they’ve already shadowed them on the job” so they understand what the profession entails.

At CCC&TI, John Noblitt says, he’s a “one-man show—the director, the teacher, and the marketing guy.” As such, he says, he’s limited in what he can do on the recruiting front. “Two years ago, when we started seeing this downtrend, I submitted some ideas around student outreach to what I thought was our public affairs department, but it turned out marketing isn’t their thing. We don’t have the funds for that like the for-profit schools do.”

Instead, he says, he spends most of his time in the classroom, teaching his students the skills they’ll need on the job. “Every single student that comes into this program has this idea that they’re going to be sitting at a bench de-soldering transistors and soldering new ones back in.” Noblitt gets in there and tells them how it really is—and then shows them “all the things that they will get to do.”

His approach is to “expose students to as much as we can, but to also really focus on getting them to think.” Toward that end, he’s told every student he’s worked with over the last 25 years to just “RTFM,” or “read the flippin’ manual.”

In the biomed field, he tells them, “there’s always [someone] in the shop who can fix everything, and everybody goes to them to ask him what they think is wrong. My message is, if that [person] has to tell you how to fix things all the time, what’s the use of you being there?”

Noblitt teaches his students not to memorize everything and put it into storage, but to know how to look for possible solutions. “That’s what they’ll need to succeed in this career.”

Christe, who worked with Noblitt on an AAMI committee to develop HTM curriculum standards, also spends at least part of her time steeping her students in the reality of their future careers. And, Christe says, she continues to field inquiries from hospital HR departments asking if any of her graduates could use a job. “But by the time my students graduate, most of them already know where they’re going.”

She tells the suitors they should contact her earlier next time they’re looking—maybe two to three months before her students get their diplomas. “But so far I haven’t seen a shift in hiring practices,” Christe says. “I’m not sure when that day is going to come.”

Chris Hayhurst is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at kstephens@medqor.com.