On the popular television show "CSI," the investigators test specimens left at the crime scene. On "House," the doctor himself does the testing.

But doctors haven't done laboratory tests since the 1900s, according to Janice Conway-Klassen, director of the Clinical Laboratory Science program at the University of Minnesota's Center for Allied Health Programs (cahp.umn.edu).

In real life, clinical laboratory scientists, also known as medical laboratory technologists, test laboratory specimens. They're in high demand, particularly in health care settings. (They also work in private industry.)

Many hospital openings

In the Twin Cities alone, where new graduates earn about $53,000 a year, there were 459 openings for clinical laboratory scientists last month. The coming wave of baby boomer retirements is only going to exacerbate the shortage.

"Nationally, there will be 68,000 new jobs needed," said Cindee Quake-Rapp, Ph.D., director of the Center for Allied Health Programs. "This is according to the Joint Commission on Occupations, a federal commission that looks at workforce on a national level. It's just such a not-known profession but it's the third largest group of health professionals after doctors and nurses."

This large yet largely invisible group has a huge impact on health care. Experts estimate that 70 percent of the health care decisions that doctors make are based on the results of laboratory tests that these workers perform. Those tests may determine glucose, cholesterol and cardiac enzyme levels; pregnancy status and blood type. These workers also do cultures to determine whether someone has pneumonia or an infection, Conway-Klassen said.

Educational options expanding

The university confers a bachelor of science degree in clinical laboratory science in Minneapolis and Rochester and is working on offering it on the Crookston campus as well. Graduates who want to work in hospitals must also obtain national certification.

The program is four years of classroom work plus one semester of clinical experience in a hospital laboratory. Most students apply in their sophomore year and the program has attracted many immigrants.

Recent graduate Nathan Bell immediately got a job at a children's hospital in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin native said the program was challenging, but that he learned a lot, particularly in his senior year. "I'm excited for where it's going to take me," said Bell.