GUIDE
April 20, 2021
How to Become a Surgical Technologist

Surgical technologists, commonly referred to as operating room technicians, surgical techs, or scrub techs, assist surgeons and the remainder of the healthcare team before, during, and after a surgical procedure. 

According to U.S. News and World Report, surgical techs are ranked the 17th highest paying job without a degree and the 23rd best health care support job. Surgical tech programs take just 12-24 months to complete and can also be an excellent entry point into another healthcare career such as a registered nurse or physician assistant.

If you're considering becoming a surgical technologist, read on to find out what a surgical tech does, how to become one, how much they make, and more.

Part One What Is a Surgical Technologist?

A surgical technologist’s primary duty is to assist physicians with operations. They prepare operating rooms, arrange equipment, and help doctors during surgeries. 

Skills Required for Surgical Technologists

In order to be a good surgical tech, you must be highly organized, proactive, conscientious, and stable enough to handle the fast-paced environment of the operating room.

Surgical techs must be able to anticipate the next move of the surgeon to ensure the operation goes as smoothly and efficiently as possible.

This demands extensive knowledge of hundreds of different surgical procedures and the steps and equipment needed to complete them. This can be a very stressful position. 

Surgical Technologist Specialties

Although many surgical technologists are generalists, you can choose to specialize in specific types of surgeries, including:

  1. Obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN)
  2. Cardiovascular
  3. Orthopedic
  4. Neurology
  5. Reconstructive
  6. Urology
  7. Ear/nose/throat (ENT) 

Specializing typically requires additional training, but allows the technologist to broaden skills in techniques such as microsurgery, organ transplantation, and surgical robotics. 

How do you get specialized? Oftentimes there are in-hospital courses, on-the-job training, or national training programs for learning advanced skills. 

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Part Two What Does a Surgical Technologist Do?

Surgical technologists have a variety of duties before, during, and after surgical procedures. The primary responsibility of a surgical tech is to ensure the operating room and surgical instruments are sterile, and ensuring the surgeons have all the instruments and materials they will need for the procedure.  

Other main responsibilities include:

  1. Applying dressings to surgical sites
  2. Assisting in retracting tissues from the surgical patient
  3. Assisting other members of the team with terminal cleaning of the operating room
  4. Coordinating the camera or changes out robotic arms/instruments during endoscopic surgery as directed by the surgeon
  5. Helping surgeons during surgery by passing them instruments and other sterile supplies
  6. Helping to prepare the patient for surgery
  7. Participating in debriefing and quality improvement practices to ensure quality patient care
  8. Performing urinary catheterization
  9. Preparing operating rooms for surgery
  10. Sterilizing equipment 
  11. Transporting the patient to and from the operating room

Part Three Where Do Surgical Technologists Work?

Surgical Technologists generally work in locations that have operating rooms or perform surgical procedures. Most commonly this is hospitals but surgical techs also work in the following locations: 

  1. Ambulatory care centers
  2. Clinics
  3. Dental offices
  4. Outpatient care centers
  5. Private physician offices
  6. Surgical centers

Part Four Surgical Technologist Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for surgical techs in 2021 was $48,510 per year or $23.32 per hour with salary ranges from $32,680 to $96,870, but conditions in your area may vary. 

Highest Paying States for Surgical Technologists

The BLS reports that in May 2021 the highest paying states for surgical techs were:

  1. California - $68,410
  2. Alaska - $65,690
  3. District of Columbia - $65,250
  4. Connecticut - $65,190
  5. Nevada - $65,180 

Highest Paying Cities for Surgical Technologists

The BLS also reported that the top five metropolitan cities for surgical tech pay were:

  1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA - $80,450
  2. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA - $80,170
  3. Vallejo-Fairfield, CA - $77,460
  4. Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA - $74,470
  5. Santa Rosa, CA - $74,330

Surgical Technologist Salary by Years of Experience

According to payscale.com, the average salary for a surgical tech as of August 2021 is $23.22 per hour or $48,748 per year.

Specifically, surgical techs can earn a higher annual salary with increased years of experience.

  1. Less than 1 year of experience earn an average hourly wage of $19.68
  2. 1-4 years of experience earn an average hourly wage of $20.83
  3. 5-9 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $23.23
  4. 10-19 years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $25.17
  5. 20 years and higher years of experience earns an average hourly wage of $26.80

Part Five How Do You Become a Surgical Technologist?

Step 1: Graduate high school or earn a GED

High school students who want to become surgical techs should take courses in biology, anatomy, and hard sciences in order to prepare for advanced science courses. 

Gaining an internship at a local healthcare system is helpful to gain general experience in a healthcare environment.

Step 2: Enroll in an accredited surgical tech program

Surgical technologist programs are typically 12-24 months and often offered at community or technical colleges.

When choosing programs, students are advised to verify that their program is accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Graduates from schools without proper accreditation may not be eligible for certification exams.

Step 3: Gain hands-on training experience

This can be achieved through job shadowing and internships. 

Step 4: Earn your certification and apply for individual state licensure

Each state has its own licensure requirements for surgical technologists. It is important to check the state licensing website prior to applying. 

Graduates will have to take one of the national certification exams through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting. There are two main certification exam options for surgical techs. 

CST Certification

The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) provides those who pass an examination with the credential of Certified Surgical Technologist (CST).

Exam Eligibility Requirements

  • Program must have been CAAHEP or ABHES accredited during your enrollment.
  • Provide ONE of the following documents:
    • A notarized letter (on institutional letterhead) from the Program Director stating your name, date of graduation, and type of degree awarded.
    • A copy of your graduation certificate
    • Transcript 

NCCT Certification

The National Center for Competency Testing offers eligible individuals the Tech in Surgery – Certified TS-C (NCCT) certification. There are three paths for eligibility: current student/graduate, experience, and military. The most common routes to certification are as a current student or graduate and through experience. 

Exam Eligibility Requirements

  • Current Student/Graduate
    • United States high school student, graduate or GED
    • You must submit a copy of your diploma from your surgical technologist program, certificate of completion, or transcript with graduation date
    • You must complete and submit a Tech in Surgery - Certified (NCCT) Critical Skills Competency form
    • Candidates are allowed a maximum of two years from the test date for completion of case documentation including the U.S. Department of Labor Registered Apprenticeship programs
  • Experience
    • Three years of verifiable full-time experience as a Surgical Technology practitioner within the past five years
    • United States high school student, graduate or GED
    • You must submit a copy of your high school diploma (or equivalent) and the Tech in Surgery - Certified (NCCT) Qualification by Experience form completed by your employer
    • Three years of full-time employment or equivalent (6240 hours) in the past five years working as a surgical technologist under the direct supervision of a Certified/Licensed Physician, Primary Care Provider, and/or RN

Part Six What is the Career Outlook for Surgical Technologists?

According to the BLS, in 2021, there were 128,700 surgical techs in the United States. By 2031, there will be a need for additional 7,700 techs, which is an expected growth of 6%.

With the aging baby boomer population and the increase in advanced technology, knowledgeable surgical technologists are highly desirable. While most patients would prefer to avoid surgery, ultimately surgery can improve quality of life and surgical technologists are needed. Each operating room requires a minimum of one surgical tech per surgical procedure. 

Interestingly, many surgical techs go on to become registered nurses, physician assistants, anesthesia assistants, and/or surgical first assistants. 

Part Seven What are the Continuing Education Requirements for Surgical Technologists?

As with most healthcare careers, surgical techs are required to maintain their certification through a fee and continuing education hours.

Certified Surgical Technologists are required to meet a minimum of 30 CE credits in two years. Specific requirements include the following: 

  • 30 CE credits, including 4 advanced credits, prior to the two-year cycle expires
  • 60 CE credits before the four-year cycle expire 

CE credits can be earned in a variety of ways, including: 

  • AST Distance CE (journal tests or CE packages)
  • Hospital In-services
  • Live lectures at AST state assemblies, national conference, and ACS Congress
  • College Courses  
  • Healthcare Manufacturer's Live Events. 

Each state also has specific CE credit requirements. Check your state licensing board for specifics. Hours earned can be applied for both state licensure and national certification.

Part Eight Resources for Surgical Technologist

Part Nine Surgical Technologist FAQs

  • How long does it take to become a surgical technologist?

    • Most surgical tech programs take 12 to 24 months to complete. These programs are generally through a community college and should be accredited by a proper agency, such as the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
  • How much does a certified surgical technologist make an hour?

  • What does a surgical technologist do?

    • Surgical technologists ensure the operating room and surgical instruments are sterile, and that the surgeons have all the instruments and materials they will need for the procedure.  
  • Is a surgical tech a good job?

    • Becoming a surgical tech is a stable and exciting career and is considered a good job. There is ample opportunity for career growth. One of the best benefits of getting into a healthcare career is that there will always be growth and room for advancement. 
  • Do surgical techs make more than nurses?

    • No surgical techs do not make more than a registered nurse. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for surgical techs in 2021 was $48,510 per year or $23.32 per hour while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports, the median salary for a registered nurse in 2021 is $77,600 per year or $37.31 per hour.
  • Can you be a surgical tech without certification?

    • Yes; however, most employers are seeking surgical techs that have completed a national certification program. This certification exam is important, and it is open to anyone who has already earned an ABHES or CCHEP accredited degree.
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