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Think Fast: What the Sterile Processing Industry Can Learn from a Fast Food Giant

High turnover, low wages, and a competitive job market. Sound familiar? While this is a common scenario for a number of different industries in the United States, the two we’ll zero in on for this article are sterile processing and fast food. In particular, we’re going to take a look at the disruptive impact that higher compensation can have in local job markets, and make a case for leading the way in your region with competitive hospital compensation packages that keep your technicians happy and your surgeries churning.

No cook, no food: No technician, no surgeries
The recent Bloomberg Business headline entitled “What Taco Bell’s $100,000 Salary Offer Says About U.S. Jobs” made folks like me stop mid-scroll. I asked myself if this was real as I began reading through the article. It was real, all right. And what it argued for were the very things for which many of us have been advocating in the sterile processing industry for years: breaking out of old compensation models because they no longer work.

Yum! Brands Inc., who owns the Taco Bell chain, has realized that the high turnover of its store leaders is no longer a sustainable model. In short, the article explains:

“…[W]ithout cooks and managers, there won’t be any business at all. Taco Bell now pays store bosses between $50,000 and $80,000. The $100,000 manager plan is meant to evaluate recruitment and retention in the Northeast and Midwest, Ferril Onyett, senior director of training and human resources, said in an email Friday.”1

The logic and economics of the situation is simple; without managers, Taco Bells cannot operate. But because of the competitive job market, many of these store leaders and frontline staff are pursuing opportunities in other careers that offer more potential for growth and higher levels of pay. Left with no other option, restaurant owners must either pay up or give up. They have decided to test the idea that a $100K annual salary will entice more managers to come work for Taco Bell, and encourage more existing managers to stay put.

The situation in our sterile processing departments is strikingly similar. Krista Penn, perioperative director at Augusta University Health, explains it succinctly: “Human resources (HR) compares compensation for SPD techs with other facilities that have never reevaluated compensation in this area either. We are told by HR that we are paying our SPD techs similar to what our competitors are paying. The problem is that our competitors aren’t paying what they are worth either. Thus, the cycle continues and no one ever adjusts compensation.”2

Market leading vs. market lagging
The cycle that Ms. Penn refers to is the combination of historically low wages for sterile processing technicians, coupled with systemic retention and turnover challenges. Hospitals rarely want to make the first move when it comes to increasing the average pay rate in their local compensation market, and because of this, frontline technician and department leadership wages tend to stagnate over time.

The practical implication of this isn’t hard to see. As wages increase in other industries, it puts a dramatic squeeze on current SPD staff retention and shrinks the available applicant pool as these candidates consider other higher-paying jobs outside of the healthcare setting.

This traditional model of completing a “market survey” of local hospitals to establish current sterile processing pay rates can best be understood as market lagging. In other words, HR departments take a look at what the market has already done, and then build their compensation packages based on that. This is all well and fine if what the market has done is actually working for the departments. But all the data is telling us this is not the case. Large percentages of hospitals around the U.S. are currently staffing temporary agency technicians (also known as travelers) and countless other departments are either holding vacancies for their empty leadership positions or are being run by temporary interim managers and directors. Departments that do have permanent leaders in place can share firsthand the difficulty faced in sourcing quality SPD candidates for their perennially open positions, or holding on to the ones they have.

What is far rarer, yet decidedly more effective, is engaging in market-leading compensation planning for your sterile processing teams. This is what Taco Bell sees as the future for their franchises, and this is the only model that has the potential to address the broken nature of the HR status quo. Instead of looking around at what others are currently paying for the same staffing challenges, a market-leading perspective seeks to break out of the market rut, disrupting existing compensation models in favor of an aggressive investment in existing and future talent.

Real-life, market-leading results
What does this market-leading compensation model look like in a real-life department context? Does it actually work in practice, not just in theory? While there are many examples to point to, I’ll give you one that I experienced up close and personal. It was 2011, and a sterile processing department across town was in dire straits. They were on their hospital’s top 10 safety concern list, half of the department was staffed with temporary travelers, and no one held an industry certification in the field. With a perfect mixture of courage and foresight, the new SPD director convinced HR that it was time to lead the market.

That year the hospital announced wage increases and multi-thousand dollar sign-on/retention bonuses for all certified sterile processing technicians who would come aboard and stay. And guess what happened? They came. The best and brightest certified technicians and leaders from around the market flooded into the hospital, changing the entire staffing dynamic nearly overnight. This decision would serve as the catalyst that put us on an eventual trajectory to be named SPD of the Year by Healthcare Purchasing News in 2016. At one point this department had more college degrees than we had total headcount, more technicians with multiple certificates than nearly every hospital on the planet, and customer satisfaction ratings that were through the roof.

Moral of the story? Market-leading compensation works. The only question you have left to answer is how fast you want to get started on it?


  1. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-10/what-taco-bell-s-100-000-salary-offer-says-about-u-s-jobs
  2. https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:ugcPost:6631505359670394880?commentUrn=urn%3Ali%3Acomment%3A%28ugcPost%3A6631505359670394880%2C6631604819545206784%29

Feature articles exclusively for Ultra Clean Systems by Weston “Hank” Balch, BS, MDiv, CRCST, CER, CIS, CHL

Weapon of Mass Microbial Destruction * Professional Clean Freak * Podcast Host * Safety Addict * CS/SPD Consultant

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