What to Know Before Becoming a Surgical Technologist: Interview with CST, Program Director & Professor

First and foremost, surgical technologists are the patient’s advocate. The importance of maintaining a sterile field [in an operating room] and being able to speak up if there’s a break in technique—whether it’s the surgeon or the assistant or someone from the unsterile team—they need to be able to speak up, correct whatever has gone wrong and be an advocate for that patient.
Mona Bourbonnais, Surgical Technologist, Program Director, and Associate Professor at the College of Western Idaho

If you have a passion for helping people and seek a career with stability, a career in the healthcare industry may be right for you. The sense of fulfillment and purpose that being in service of healing people gives is unmatched by most other occupations. And because society is always in need of qualified professionals to keep our healthcare infrastructure running smoothly, there is always a demand for entrants.

Those that do not aim to become a physician or surgeon but have a vocation for care often default to nursing because it is in high demand and pays well but requires less of a time investment to qualify. But over the last twenty years, the path to becoming a nurse, which was once a fairly accessible career, has become notoriously competitive, with schools raising acceptance requirements to help filter the abundance of applicants.

But nursing isn’t the only healthcare career that requires less time in school than becoming a physician or surgeon and still pays a decent wage. Different kinds of medical technicians and technologists receive higher pay than you might think.

For instance, certified surgical technologists (CSTs) make good money and are in high demand. As the population grows and advances in medical technology make surgery safer than ever before, the employment of these professionals is projected to increase by 9 percent over the period between 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations during the same decade (5 percent).

And most programs for CSTs are only between 12 and 24 months in length, so you could be on the floor of an operating room making a family wage within a year-and-a-half of being accepted to a CST program. Sounds great, right? Well, before you start submitting applications, there are a few things you should know about the career first.

We talked to the program director of the College of Western Idaho’s surgical technology program, Mona Bourbonnais, about the top tips she has for potential students.

Meet the Expert: Surgical Technologist, Program Director, and Associate Professor Mona Bourbonnais

Mona Bourbonnais has been a surgical technologist for 30 years and is a fellow of the Association of Surgical Technologists. In 1999, she became the director of the surgical technology program at Boise State University, which has been offered since the early 1970s. Over the years, she completed her BS in professional technical education and an MS in adult education and organizational leadership from the University of Idaho.

In 2009, BSU’s surgical tech program was transferred to the College of Western Idaho (CWI), where Bourbonnais continues to direct the surgical technology program and also teaches as an associate professor.

The Local Demand for Surgical Techs May Vary

While the BLS reports that demand for surgical techs is expected to increase across the U.S. in the next ten years, depending on your precise location, the need for CSTs may be very high or non-existent.

If you are in a city, chances are there will be plenty of jobs, but some degree of competition for the most sought-after employers. If you are in a more rural area, job availability depends on whether or not there are hospitals and/or surgery centers nearby and the turnover rate of CSTs at those institutions.

If you are concerned about finding a job after you graduate, ask the school if they help with job placement and what their placement rate is.

“We have a 100 percent placement rate. I don’t like to use that term necessarily, because students are responsible for finding their own jobs after they graduate. But I feel that the demand for CSTs in the Pacific Northwest is very high,” Bourbonnais said. “One of the largest employers in the state of Idaho is St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center and they are always requesting that we increase our enrollment.”

You can also check the Association of Surgical Technology’s career center page or your city’s Glassdoor or Indeed pages to see how many and how often listings for CSTs are posted.

Surgical Techs Can Make a Six-Figure Income

Most websites report that CSTs only make about $40,000 per year, which is true in some cases, but this doesn’t paint an accurate picture of how much most surgical techs truly earn. It depends on a couple of factors: geographic location and facility type.

Pay for surgical technicians generally tends to be higher on the west coast—namely, in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Idaho—than on the east coast.

From Florida to New York, pay currently averages between $13 to $16 to start, while on the West coast, CSTs make over $20 per hour right after graduating from school, and earning potential increases with experience.

“If we’re talking about Idaho, the starting salary is about $22 to $23 per hour as a new graduate, and I would say probably $38 for an experienced CST,” Bourbonnais said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports average yearly incomes of surgical techs across the U.S. by workplace type. According to its data, CSTs who work in hospitals (which are the most common workplace of CSTs) earn about $48,000 annually.

However, there should be a huge asterisk next to that figure because it only represents the base pay. The amount of money that CSTs that work in hospitals actually bring home can be more than double that amount.

Working at a hospital means that most of the surgeries performed are emergencies—or at the least, unplanned—so CSTs are often on call, for which they are paid an extra amount hourly, which is usually about $5 per hour if you are not called in, and time-and-a-half in the case that you are called in.

Shift differential—which is similar to being on call, but refers specifically to the extra compensation an employee makes working a less desirable shift—can bring in an additional amount, usually about $2 per hour, if you are not called in. If you are called in, then you are paid time-and-a-half plus travel expenses.

If you are willing to be flexible with your schedule, you can take advantage of these extra payment opportunities and wind up making well over $100,000 per year.

Outpatient surgery centers, however, do not provide these extra opportunities because surgical operations are planned in advance, so scheduling shifts is much easier and keeping CSTs on call is not necessary. Here, the $40,000 to $48,000 salary range is more accurate. While income is lower, people that are more comfortable having a predictable schedule prefer working in outpatient centers.

For comparison’s sake, the path of becoming a registered nurse (RN) generally requires completing a four-year program and on average, earns about $73,300 per year, according to the Bureau of Labors Statistics (May 2019). Medical assistants and dental assistants programs are usually about the same length as surgical technology programs and have average salaries of $34,000 and $40,000 per year, respectively.

Surgical Technologist Working Conditions Aren’t for Everyone

This may seem like an obvious point, but it is worth noting. If the sight of blood, incisions, or the smell of burning flesh makes you feel woozy, this career path may not be for you. You don’t want to be the one in the operating room that faints and potentially distracts the surgeon from focusing on the procedure. But if you think there’s a chance you could become comfortable with a little exposure, then don’t cross surgical technology off your list just yet.

A study in 2009 found that of 630 medical students, 12 percent passed out or came close the first time in the operating room, but many of them improved after making themselves return again on a later date. Making sure to have eaten a proper meal and hydrating on the day of surgery was also shown to have a positive effect on surveyees.

One other aspect of CST’s working conditions that is important to consider is the fact that they work long shifts, sometimes eight hours, depending on the length of the surgery. If you are not able to stay on your feet for hours at a time, this may be more of a problem.

Surgical Technologists Need to Learn a New Language

…Well, the language of medicine, that is.

“Once they get into the program, some students ask what they can do over the summer to help prepare,” Bourbonnais said. “One of the things I tell them is they must have a really good working knowledge of medical terminology, anatomy, and physiology because that’s the language of surgery and medicine. It’s going to be used immediately when you’re in the program, and once you’re in the hospital for clinical rotations, people expect you to use that language.”

It also doesn’t hurt to brush up on sterile processing knowledge before you start your program, which is a big part of the job.

“Sterile processing allows the students to know the instruments themselves and what it means to take care of the instruments and equipment,” Norma Cyphert, the director of the surgical tech program at Linn-Benton Community College added. “If a student comes in with prior knowledge of instruments, they are way ahead of all the other students.”

The Importance of Patient Advocacy

The ease of entry to surgical technology and its earning potential are big draws to students exploring different occupations within healthcare, but Bourbannis emphasized that potential entrants should think deeply about the role of the CST before making up their minds.

“One of the most important things we look at when we are making a selection from our pool of applicants for our cohort of students every year is that they really understand the role of a surgical technologist,” Bourbonnais said. “If they can’t articulate what a surgical technologist actually does, we know they haven’t done the research and they don’t understand the role, so they’re not going to be successful in the program.”

CST’s duties include getting patients ready for procedures, preparing the operating room, gathering and sterilizing instruments for surgery, passing instruments to surgeons during a procedure, and inventorying surgical supplies. But their most important job?

“First and foremost, surgical technologists are the patient’s advocate. The importance of maintaining a sterile field [in an operating room] and being able to speak up if there’s a break in technique—whether it’s the surgeon or the assistant or someone from the unsterile team—they need to be able to speak up, correct whatever has gone wrong and be an advocate for that patient,” Bourbannis explained.

Nina Chamlou
Nina Chamlou Writer

Nina Chamlou is an avid freelance writer from Portland, OR. She writes about economic trends, business, technology, digitization, supply chain, healthcare, education, aviation, and travel. You can find her floating around the Pacific Northwest in diners and coffee shops, or traveling abroad, studying the locale from behind her MacBook. Visit her website at www.ninachamlou.com.