Tips for recruiting and retaining HTM staff

June 04, 2021
by Lauren Dubinsky, Senior Reporter
Amid a national biomedical engineer shortage, it’s more important than ever to understand how to recruit and retain these valuable employees. Veterans Affairs (VA) developed a group dedicated to this eight years ago and it has proved to be very successful.

Jay Patterson, chief of HTM at Orlando VA Healthcare System, and Elena Buckley, chief of clinical engineering at VA Boston Healthcare System, spoke at an AAMI Summer Learning Series webinar in 2020 about the health system’s VA Biomedical Engineering Recruitment and Retention (BERR) group.

This group is composed of three subgroups — the biomedical engineer (BME) group, biomedical equipment support specialist (BESS) group and the technical career field (TCF) group. The 172 VA Medical Centers nationwide employ roughly 360 BMEs and over 1,200 BESSs.

The health system conducts a survey every few years to get input from the HTM community about what drives recruitment. The 2019 survey included 334 responses from BESS, BME, supervisors and the Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) staff.

When asked how satisfied the participants are with their current position, 65% responded “very satisfied/satisfied,” which was up from 63% in 2017. Furthermore, it was discovered that salary and promotional opportunities were a big driver of satisfaction in the VA.

“So we knew that our recruitment and retention strategies had to be focused on these two areas because, obviously, this is a priority in our field,” said Buckley.

The survey also found that the top motivation for leaving the VA in 2019 was salary dissatisfaction, followed by lack of promotion opportunity and poor service line leadership. In response to this, the VA included retention strategies in each of their work groups to address those concerns.

The BME subgroup deployed a 10-question exit interview for their service line across the U.S. to pinpoint why people are leaving and to prevent that from happening. They also rolled out a Stay VA interview process for staff member currently employed to find out what drives them to stay.

According to Buckley, once you know what they like about the job, you can develop strategies to enhance those aspects. For instance, if they really like imaging then you can focus their preventative maintenance or everyday tasks on that department.

“Salary is a big driver of keeping people in the VA system but unfortunately because of the government pay scales, we are a little bit limited in what we can do for salary,” explained Buckley.

Instead, they highlight other benefits that the VA offers including training, education opportunities, and retirement and family benefits. Buckley noted that this is especially attractive for younger people as they grow within the system.

Virtual recruitment events are a big part of the BME group’s recruitment strategy. Participants learn more about the HTM field and share their résumé to get them connected with VA sites around the U.S.

But one of the group’s most successful initiatives is its Ambassador Program, which has recruited 20 ambassadors across 10 VISNs. These ambassadors are equipped with a toolkit that includes presentation materials, flyers, business card templates and an AAMI HTM in a Box link.

They are required to attend four calls per year and complete two events, which can include career fairs, mentoring, presentations at schools and professional panels. BME has been able to target 40 events per year with their 20 ambassadors and they are hoping to double the number of ambassadors next year.

The BESS subgroup prioritizes training and education. The VA is working with their national SimLearn Center in Orlando to offer simulated ICU and OR environments and is also in talks with manufacturers about offering training on specific models of equipment.

“In my own experience, a lot of technicians may complain that they don’t get enough training whether it’s budgetary or missed opportunities to go out and get training on equipment,” said Patterson.

The group also created a tool to help supervisors become more intentional about planning their training. That includes guidance for how to justify training as an investment to C-suite administrators.

Patterson also stressed the importance of recognition as a retention strategy. The group holds its HTM High Five Award to recognize a handful of BESS employees that went above and beyond every year.

Since December 2018, there have been 122 nominations for this award. Several are chosen each month to highlight on a national HTM call or in the HTM newsletter.

“As a long-time supervisor, I believe that we can’t recognize people enough,” said Patterson. “That’s one thing that’s very easy to forget about and get into the habit of expecting people to do certain things.”

The most recent nominations focused on the HTM’s response to COVID-19. Patterson said that the team went to great lengths to ensure that the temporary ED was ready for use during the pandemic.

“This area was not ready for HTM until the end of the day,” he added. “This team stayed into the night installing equipment and making sure everything was ready to go for the opening the next day.”