These days, with the economic climate still uncertain and competition for jobs fierce, the clinical/biomedical engineering field is feeling a bit of the pressure. In the past, a biomedical equipment technician might have received training in the military or on the job, and that education would have sufficed as the foundation for a long and successful career. Now, things could be changing.

Currently, employers are satisfied with the current structure of 2 years of technical education, says Steven Bezanson, biomedical equipment instructor for the biomedical equipment technology program at the Dakota County Technical College, Rosemount, Minn. However, he finds that employers also expect a year or 2 of on-the-job training.

In the future, however, degrees may take on a greater importance, especially for those clinical/biomedical engineers who have set their sights on management positions. “I think it’s becoming more of an issue if they’re going to go into a supervisory position,” says Roger Bowles, EdD, CBET, department chair and professor for the biomedical equipment technology department at Texas State Technical College in Waco, Tex. “Employers see biomeds as more well-rounded if they have the bachelor’s degree.”

William A. Hyman, ScD, professor of biomedical engineering at Texas A&M University, College Station, Tex, agrees, especially for those biomeds wanting to work for the Veterans Administration. “The VA is certainly looking for degreed students, even to the masters level for a clinical engineer,” he says.

While employers do have a desire for biomeds to have an associate’s degree for entry-level positions, Barbara Christe, MS, program director for biomedical engineering technology and associate professor of the engineering technology department at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, has not seen the shift to the bachelor’s degree. Christe credits this to the absence of institutions offering BMET degrees and the fact that the economic downturn has not hit the biomedical/clinical engineering field as hard as other industries. “I don’t have alums that are unemployed,” she says. “However, I do see students now getting only one offer upon graduation instead of five, and they now have to create a resume, where they never used to.”

Employee Pressure

Whether or not employees are demanding biomeds pursue bachelor’s degrees remains debatable. Christe believes that demand will remain low until more institutions offer the BMET degree.

“There aren’t enough associate degree programs, so we still have a ways to go before the shift to the bachelor’s degree is going to happen,” she says. “Some employers are clamoring for it, but the majority are not.”

But some are seeing the associate’s degree become more important. “What I’ve seen around the country is, if you don’t have at least an associate’s degree, don’t apply,” Bezanson says.

Hyman echoes this sentiment and cautions current biomeds that the skill level in many jobs, and the employment landscape, is changing. “The more people that are on the street, the more choices employers are going to have,” he says. “If the job is getting more sophisticated, with a need for computer literacy and other higher-level functions, then that would go along with a greater expectation that biomeds have the academic qualifications to go with it.”

He adds: “Employers are going to hire the better educated person with the most relevant education.”

Online degree classes offer flexibility and can open up options for those who do not have access to universities that offer a specific BMET degree program.

Degree Diversity

All of which brings us to the issue of relevancy. Does the area of degree attainment matter? If the pursuit of a BMET degree is not logistically feasible, will a degree in a related field, such as IT or health care management, or engineering management, suffice?

“Whether or not it matters is almost irrelevant,” Christe says. “There are only a handful of degree providers that offer the bachelor’s in the specific field of the BMET, so if you don’t have access to those institutions, it doesn’t matter. Employers would prefer that you get a degree in something that is more BMET focused, but it’s just not available to everyone.”

She admits that many biomeds pursue a degree outside the BMET field because degrees in related fields are more available and may be easier to attain.

Bowles feels biomeds are finding a degree in information systems (IS) to be a good choice because the biomed and IT fields are converging. “The convergence has been pretty steady, and I think it will pick up steam, especially because of all the equipment that’s going into the electronic medical record,” he says.

A Worthwhile Pursuit?

Pursuing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree requires a good deal of personal sacrifice and financial outlay, especially if the employer is not picking up the tab. Is it worth it in the end? Christe thinks so.

“My students who earn bachelor’s degrees can write their own ticket,” she says. “They receive sign-on bonuses and moving expenses. We just don’t have enough of them.”

Still, she recognizes that many biomeds are currently working in steady positions with high pay and job security. “A lot of them make six-figure salaries, so there isn’t a lot of impetus to get a bachelor’s degree when you’re making that kind of money and have a solid career,” she says. “I think that’s head in the sand.”

Bezanson finds the salary rewards for biomeds getting a degree to be substantial. He calculates that a student graduating from his program will have spent $14,000 total for a 2-year degree and can expect to make $18 to $22 an hour right after graduation. “I recently had a student that graduated and started at $22.50 an hour,” he says. “In 16 months, he was making over $30 an hour. That’s a big payoff for a $14,000 investment.”

Bezanson also points to the additional opportunities that can present themselves to degreed biomeds. “The nuclear power plant here is short on techs,” he says. “Some of my students are considering going to work at the nuclear power plant because they’ve had training in electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics, and how to think in a regulatory environment.”

In the future, those biomeds without degrees may find themselves locked out of advancement. “They’re going to get locked out of certain types of advancement without the degree because it’s becoming more expected,” Hyman says. “We’re not talking about individual people’s quality, we’re talking about expectation overall. The outliers don’t make the model; the general expectations make the model.”

The Best Options

The question of whether to pursue a degree traditionally in a classroom—or online—continues to be debated. In terms of money, many community colleges offer prerequisites, like English and math, for a fraction of the cost of university tuition. Online classes can be even cheaper—and more readily available.

“Online versus traditional education is becoming a blurred line,” Bowles says. “So many traditional universities offer online programs.”

Opting for an online degree can certainly open up options for those who are unable to move to the few areas where universities traditionally offer a specific BMET degree. However, online classes are not necessarily easier or less time consuming. “In fact, they might take more time because of the amount of reading you have to do,” Bowles says. “But it’s more flexible time, so you can do your work at 3 o’clock in the morning if you need to.”

Still, Bowles cautions that a biomed pursuing an online degree will need self-starting capabilities to be successful. “It takes a motivated, self-disciplined student to do it online because there’s not always someone telling you exactly what you need to do,” he says. “If you need more structure, then I think the face-to-face option is a better deal.”

Conversely, Bezanson feels that a traditional degree program at a university offers a richer educational experience. “I have a firm belief that a big part of education is the interaction with other students and the back and forth within the classroom,” he says. “When it comes to the technology side of it, that’s hands-on. You’ve got to touch it, feel it, look at it.”

Some programs offer a combination of online and offline that can work very well. “We offer a class on anatomy and physiology where students do most of their coursework online, but they meet in class 1 day a week for 4 hours,” Bezanson says. “This gives students a chance for some back-and-forth with the instructor.”

Whether or not employers have as much respect for an online education still remains questionable. “It depends on the university,” Bowles says. “The University of Texas has online degrees, and there is nothing on the diploma that says it’s online.”

Hyman believes, however, that online degrees still carry a reputation of lower quality. “I think online has a generally negative connotation,” he says. “Good online degrees are tainted by the suspect online degrees, so it’s not an ideal first choice.” However, he does support pursuing an online degree, if that is the only alternative available. “It still shows a record of accomplishment, and it’s proof of hard work.”

Facing the Challenges

Making the decision to go to school, or go back to school, should not be undertaken lightly. Pursuing a degree can be physically, emotionally, and financially draining, but with proper forethought and planning, success can be achieved.

“It’s important to recognize that it’s doable,” Christe says. “We have graduates that have earned their degree over 10 years. It’s prioritization.”

One of the first things to line up is financial aid. Who will be funding the degree? If your employer agrees to foot some, or all, of the bill, you will need to get your paperwork approved well in advance. Most universities also offer loans and grants, and the new GI bill also offers tuition support.

Time will be the other commodity in short supply, especially if you are working full time and have family obligations. You will need to determine how long you have to finish the degree. Do you need to complete it quickly, or can you spread the work out over time?

“If you’re young, take the long view and tell yourself it’s going to take a while to get it done, but in the long run it’s going to be worth it,” Hyman says. “At the other end of the spectrum, you can take the ‘suicide’ route, and tell yourself you’ll be done in 2 or 3 years, and then your life will be better.”

Improving with Age

For older students, returning to school can be even more challenging, but it can still be a rewarding experience with the proper planning and perspective.

“One of the advantages that an older student coming back in for retraining or reeducation may have is the work history they have behind them,” Bezanson says. “Depending on what they have done, they may be bringing skills that an employer finds to have additional value.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing returning older students is the fear that they won’t be up to the challenge of understanding the material, or be able to study effectively and pass tests.

“There is a mixture of hope and fear. Hope that they can do this and fear that they will fail,” Bezanson says. “The fear is the hardest thing for them to get past. They come in at an older age believing they are too old to learn. I haven’t found a one where that’s true.”

Looking Ahead

With medical technology growing ever more complicated, the aging of the population and its attendant medical demands, and the expectation of some form of health care reform, the need for clinical/biomedical engineers is only expected to grow.

“Four years ago, the Department of Labor was predicting a 22% increase in the need for biomeds by 2012,” Bezanson says. “If every school cranked out the maximum number of students, we would still have a shortage of 900 BMETs a year.”

Find other articles on education and careers in the archives.

The demand for home health care—and the needed equipment—is also expected to grow, as is the use of electronic medical records. All of this spells good news for biomeds, especially those savvy enough to get the education and skills training they will need to compete in the future.

“There is going to be more to know, especially on the information systems side,” Bowles says. “And that will be true more so than ever.”

Now may be just the time to get the education you need to fast track your career.

Cynthia Kincaid is a contributing writer for 24×7. For more information, contact .

A Packaged Deal

Biomeds considering the pursuit of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree have a variety of choices and options, including attending a traditional university, pursuing a degree online, or doing a combination of both.

There is also a unique alternative choice: Thomas Edison State College. What makes Thomas Edison different from other educational paths is the school’s unique approach to education and the attainment of a degree. Thomas Edison, named for the famous American inventor who acquired knowledge outside of the traditional classroom, is a distance learning institution specifically designed for self-directed adults who wish to “package” their education from a variety of sources. In other words, a student can choose a course of study from a variety of online courses, guided study programs, and prior learning assessment courses provided by the school. Credit is also given to credit transfers and credit-bearing exams.

Thomas Edison’s Associate in Science in Applied Science and Technology (ASAST) degree program in biomedical electronics is aimed specifically at technicians who are responsible for designing and maintaining hospital and other health-oriented electronics equipment. Courses in the 60-credit degree program include biomedical electronics, electronic devices, digital electronics, and biomedical equipment.

Thomas Edison’s Bachelor of Science in Applied Science and Technology (BSAST) degree in biomedical electronics enables mid-career adults in a wide range of applied fields to meet their educational and professional needs. The degree is a 120-credit program.

Courses are delivered to students wherever they live or work. The only time most students visit the Trenton, NJ, campus is to attend commencement.