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Surgical Tech Careers

Surgical technologists, also called operating room technicians or surgical techs, do their part to ensure a safe, sterile and well-run operating room environment for surgeons, nurses and other medical personnel. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), their duties can include situating patients on the operating table before the operation begins, applying disinfectant to incision sites and covering patients with sterile material. During operations, surgical techs stand by with sterile surgical instruments that they pass to surgeons and surgical assistants when asked, and they may apply wound dressings or transfer patients to recovery rooms once the operation is completed (bls.gov/ooh, 2012).

The BLS reports that most surgical technologists work in hospitals, where they may be on call during nights, weekends and holidays. Some surgical techs find jobs in physicians' offices, outpatient surgery centers or the offices of dentists who perform outpatient surgery procedures. The clinical working environment often causes surgical techs to work on their feet and in close proximity to others for long periods of time, and they may occasionally experience unpleasant sights, smells or substances in the course of performing their duties (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). Despite all this, surgical techs rarely find themselves truly at risk of contamination if proper safety procedures are followed.

How to Become a Surgical Tech

There are two main paths to surgical tech careers. Students can earn a postsecondary certificate in a year or so if they want to get started in the labor force as soon as possible, or they can choose to work toward an associate degree, which may take two years of full-time study but may be a better option for individuals who think they might continue their education in the future. Here's a quick rundown of the steps an individual can take to pursue surgical tech training and employment:

  1. Earn a high school diploma or equivalent, making sure to take some courses in biology, chemistry, health and mathematics.
  2. Complete a surgical technology training program -- preferably one that's been recognized by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) or the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Both types of program typically consist of classroom-based coursework supplemented by practical sessions of hands-on clinical training.
  3. Check to see if your state has regulations that govern surgical tech careers to see if there are any additional special requirements.
  4. Investigate the requirements for professional certification, which usually involves an exam and a pledge to continue one's education in the field.
  5. Apply for entry-level surgical tech jobs at hospitals, physicians' offices and/or outpatient surgery clinics.
  6. Follow organizational requirements to maintain surgical technology certification.

It's important to note that while these career training steps can be generally recommended, and are based off of guidelines put forth by the BLS, they do not, in any way, guarantee employment.

Post-Education Requirements: Certifications and/or State Licensing

It's important to note the difference between completing a certificate program and being recognized for your surgical tech training with national certification. Employers don't necessarily demand that candidates be certified, but the BLS notes that it can help qualified surgical techs find suitable positions. In a few states, certification is not optional (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). At least two different organizations offer certification for surgical techs:

  • National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA): The NBSTSA offers multiple certifications, but the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) credential is the one most relevant to surgical tech jobs.
  • National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT): The applicable NCCT certification is known as Tech in Surgery - Certified (TS-C) and tests applicants on medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, pharmacology and surgical workplace procedures and safety.

Continuing education or re-testing is necessary to maintain any of these certifications. Specific details can be found on the organizations' websites.

Surgical Tech Job Growth and Average Salary

The BLS reports that surgical tech jobs are expected to increase by 19 percent between 2010 and 2020, a rate faster than the average growth for all occupations (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). The BLS suggests that the growing number of aging baby boomers is a driver of the growth, along with technological advancements in the medical field that help medical personnel more safely perform operations to treat injury and disease. Also according to the BLS, the median annual wage among surgical techs was $41,790 in May 2012, with the highest 10 percent earning more than $60,240 and the lowest 10 percent earning less than $29,710 (bls.gov/oes, 2013). As with all occupations, the salary for surgery tech jobs can vary according to factors such as location, experience and education.

List of Related Careers

Aspiring surgical techs or those already with surgical tech training may ultimately choose to pursue a different path in the medical field. Similar healthcare careers (which require additional education and/or experience) include:

  • Medical Laboratory Technicians: Analyze specimens using lab equipment and log the results on a patient's medical record. A certificate or associate degree is typically sufficient, and licensure may be needed in some states.
  • Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurses: Monitor patient health and deliver basic nursing care. LPNs/LVNs need to earn a diploma or certificate, and become licensed in the state in which they wish to practice.
  • Dental Hygienists: Examine patients' teeth, perform cleanings and teach patients about oral hygiene. Dental hygienists need at least an associate degree, as well as state licensure.

Links to Sources and Associations

The following websites offer more about surgical tech jobs:

Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Surgical Technologists, 2012

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, Surgical Technologists, 2013

Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs

National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting, Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) Exams

National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) Certifications