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How to Become a Surgical Technologist in California: Surgery Technology Career Guide

Surgical technologists, also known as operating room technicians, have a huge role in the preparation for operations. They set up operating rooms, arrange equipment and help doctors during surgeries.1 One surgical technologist says, “We are one of the only health care professionals who get the opportunity to hold a beating heart, touch the brain … and bring life into this world.”2

This Surgery Technology Career Guide will tell you why surgical technology is a growing field, what a surgical technologist does, how to become one, what you need to know about certification and more.

What is a Surgical Technologist?

Surgical technologists learn the theory and application of sterile techniques, human anatomy, and therapeutic and diagnostic surgical procedures.

Operating rooms require extensive preparation before surgery. This includes sterilizing surfaces and making sure required instruments are at hand. This essential role is handled by a surgical tech. Surgical techs are a surgeon’s right hand, as well as an extra hand when needed. 

The role of a surgical technologist is different from the role of a similarly named profession, surgical technician.

Surgical Technologist vs Surgical Technician

Some employers and organizations use the terms surgical technician and surgical technologist interchangeably. But technologists typically have more education and are more directly involved with patients, surgeons, nurses and other surgery personnel. Technicians have on-the-job experience and sometimes report to technologists or nurses.3

There are some other similarities and differences between the two specialties:

Surgical technologists:

  • Help prepare the surgical arena
  • Prep patients by shaving, disinfecting and draping them
  • Aid surgeons, operate some equipment and may handle specimens
  • Anticipate a surgeon’s needs
  • Monitor patients under anesthesia

Surgical technicians: 

  • Sterilize the surgery room, tools and utensils
  • Take care of surgical patients pre-op
  • Transport patients to surgery
  • Act as a liaison to patients and their family members

Why Become a Surgical Technologist

Here are 8 reasons to become a surgical technologist and attend surgical technologist school.

  1. You can start your career quickly. Some medical professions require years of classes and internships before you can start working in your field. Surgical techs, however, can complete their surgical tech programs within 12 to 24 months.
  2. Less school means less debt. Since you don’t have to commit to four to six years of education, you can avoid taking out huge loans that eat away at your earnings.
  3. Job opportunities are abundant. Most surgical techs are employed in hospitals, and most every hospital has surgeons who perform procedures with their help. Close to home, in May 2020, California had the second highest number of surgical technologists, with 9,140 jobs.5
  4. Employers are searching for you. There is a demand for good surgical technologists. Some are hired even before they graduate from their surgical tech programs.
  5. Work with the newest technologies. Some surgical technologist programs offer robotic surgical procedure training, along with fiber optics and laser technology. As a surgical technologist, you can be at the forefront of new surgical techniques.
  6. You’ll be part of a team. Work side by side with medical professionals as you build strong professional relationships. You’ll be relied upon to keep your operating room safe and productive. 
  7. You’ll help change people’s lives daily. More than just helping stave off infections and preparing patients, you’ll be part of a team improving the quality of patients’ lives.

What Does a Surgical Technologist Do?

A surgical technologist’s day-to-day job is multifaceted. Among typical duties, surgical techs operate sterilizers, lights, suction machines, electrosurgical units and diagnostic equipment. On any one day, a surgical tech may be expected to:7

  • Adjust medical equipment settings or positions 
  • Apply bandages, dressings or splints
  • Assist during surgery
  • Clean medical equipment or facilities
  • Keep inventory of medical equipment or supplies 
  • Maintain sterile operative fields
  • Monitor patient conditions during treatments, procedures or activities
  • Operate diagnostic or therapeutic medical instruments or equipment
  • Order medical equipment or supplies 
  • Position patients for examination or treatment
  • Prepare biological specimens for laboratory analysis
  • Protect patients or staff members with safety equipment
  • Record patient medical histories
  • Sterilize medical equipment or instruments

Students in the Surgical Technology program at SJVC learn:

  • How to assemble surgical equipment and instruments properly
  • How to create a sterile field and maintain it
  • How to anticipate the surgeon’s needs during operation
  • How to provide pre-, intra- and post-operative care
  • How to safely handle and care for specimens

Students learn in a simulated operating room environment and participate in clinical rotations to gain direct experience in a medical/surgical environment.

Skills for Surgical Technologists

Surgical technologists display a variety of skills in their professional lives. From physical actions to “soft skills,” surgical techs can be expected to display each of these attributes.8

  • Active listening. You’ll give full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand them and asking questions as you need. 
  • Coordination. You’ll adjust your actions in relation to others’ actions.
  • Critical thinking. You’ll use logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative approaches, conclusions or solutions to problems.
  • Equipment maintenance. You’ll perform routine maintenance on equipment and determine when and what kind of maintenance is needed.
  • Instruction. You may be called upon to teach others how to do something.
  • Judgment and decision making. You’ll consider the relative costs and benefits of potential actions so you can choose the most appropriate one.
  • Learning strategies. You’ll select and use instructional and training methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things.
  • Management of material resources. You will coordinate the appropriate use of equipment, facilities and materials needed to do certain work.
  • Monitoring. You’ll watch and assess performance of yourself and other individuals or organizations to make improvements or take corrective action.
  • Operation and control. You’ll be called upon to control operations of equipment or systems.
  • Oversight of the operating room. You’ll watch gauges, dials and other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.
  • Proactive learning. You’ll learn to understand the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Problem solving. You’ll identify complex problems and review related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions.
  • Reading comprehension. You’ll need to understand written sentences and paragraphs in work related documents.
  • Service orientation. You’ll be expected to actively look for ways to help people.
  • Social perceptiveness. You’ll need to be aware of others’ reactions and understand why they react as they do.
  • Speaking. You’ll be expected to convey information to others confidently and effectively.
  • Time management. You’ll be expected to manage your own time and, as needed, the time of others.

Surgical Technologist Career Path

Upon securing a position as a surgical technologist, you may find the opportunity to grow your expertise by specializing in a particular surgical branch while you still assist as a general technician. Among the specialties you could select are:9

  • Anesthesia
  • Heart surgery 
  • Neurosurgery
  • Organ transplantation
  • Pharmacology
  • Plastic surgery
  • Sterilization
  • Wound preparation

Each of these specialties usually require additional education, training, certification and licenses. 

You may also choose to pursue other paths of advancement outside of the general surgical tech field.9 Among the options open to surgical tech are:

  • First assistant. These are the primary surgical technicians in an operating room who perform more advanced duties.
  • Management or administration. Surgical techs work with teams and have first-hand knowledge of what surgical teams need. Along with some business training, this can open up management positions.
  • Private companies. Surgical techs may be able to seek positions with insurance companies, operating equipment firms and other companies that work with surgeons and surgery needs.

Find Your Path in Surgical Technology

SJVC is committed to hands-on training in the skills you need as a surgical technologist. Learn more about our program and exciting opportunities.

How to Become a Surgical Technologist

Surgical technologists usually have a diploma (but not necessarily – see below), a certificate an or associate’s degree. The programs can take from a few months to two years to complete.10

When learning how to become a surgical tech, one will learn about the care and safety of patients, sterilization techniques, how to set up technical or robotic equipment, and preventing and controlling infections. In addition to classroom study, students gain hands-on experience in supervised clinical settings.

Surgical technologist candidates can expect to take classes in:11

  • Anesthesia
  • Anatomy
  • Aseptic technique
  • Biomedical sciences
  • Legal aspects of surgical patient care
  • Medical terminology
  • Microbiology
  • Operative procedures
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Professional ethics
  • Safety precautions
  • Sterilization methods 
  • Surgical instruments, supplies and equipment
  • Surgical patient care

Do You Need a Degree to Become a Surgical Technologist?

If you’re interested in joining the field quickly, becoming a surgical technologist is one of few careers in health care that does not require a degree. Certificates and diplomas that can qualify you for this career are typically earned in as little as one year. Coursework focuses specifically on surgical technology without courses on general knowledge or electives. These programs often can be completed through technical or vocational schools.12

How Long Does it Take to Become a Surgical Technologist?

The time it takes to complete training to become a surgical technologist depends mostly on the program. A degree can take up to two years. SJVC’s Surgical Technology Associate Degree program can be completed in as few as 15 months.

Do You Need a Surgical Technologist Certification?

It might be beneficial for you to obtain certification as a surgical technologist to further your career.

With certification from the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting, you’ll be allowed to use the title “Certified Surgical Technologist (CST).” Obtaining certification usually requires completing an accredited formal education program and passing an exam.

There are other surgical tech certification programs. Another certification you can receive is through the National Center for Competency Testing. With it, you will be allowed to use the “Tech in Surgery – Certified or TS-C (NCCT)” title. Applicants may qualify through formal education, military training, or work experience. All require documenting critical skills and passing an exam.10

Surg Tech Continuing Education Requirements

Both the CST and TS-C (NCCT) certifications require surgical technologists to complete continuing education to maintain their certification.10

CST-certified techs must take 30 credits of CE within two years or pass a recertification exam for a fee. Techs with a TS-C (NCCT) credential must renew their credential annually. They must complete 14 CE credits and pay a fee.13

What to Look for in a Surgical Technology Program

There are many surgical tech programs in California for you to choose from. Many programs will offer the required classes to help you receive your surgical technologist diploma, certificate or degree. But you should look for one important indication of a program’s quality.

Make sure your program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Graduates of an accredited program are eligible to apply to the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA) to sit for the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) national certification exam. Graduates who pass the certification exam are authorized to use the credential Certified Surgical Technologist (CST).14

What Will I Learn in SJVC’s Surgical Technology Program?

Surgical technology programs will offer many key courses to prepare you for certification and employment. SJVC students will be required to take these core classes:

  • Anatomy and Physiology with Medical Terminology
  • Clinical Experience 1 and 2
  • Surgical Case Management Lab
  • Basic Surgical Procedures Lab
  • Introduction to Surgical Technology
  • Surgical Case Management
  • Basic Surgical Procedures
  • Advanced Surgical Procedures
  • Professional Development

Courses in Ethics and Introduction to Sociology will also be required as well as general education coursework.

Our Faculty

SJVC faculty have real-world experience in health care and surgical technology. They’re committed to supporting you in your educational and professional endeavor. You’ll learn from experienced faculty as you grow your skills to enter the field.

Our Students

SJVC surgical technology students come from all walks of life, ready to begin a new chapter. You’ll get an opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to gain employment as an entry-level surgical technologist and become a contributing member of the health care team.

Kickstart Your Career in Surgical Technology

Small class sizes, individual attention, and hands-on training in the skills you need. Learn more about surgical technology with SJVC.

Learn More About Surgical Technology

If you’re ready to start your surgical technology education, we are ready to help you. SJVC offers the Associate of Science Degree in Surgical Technology at campuses in Bakersfield, Fresno, Rancho Cordova and Temecula.

The Surgical Technology program delivered at the Fresno, Bakersfield, Rancho Cordova, and Temecula Campuses is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) upon the recommendation of the Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (ARC-STSA).

Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

25400 US Hwy 19 N., Suite 158

Clearwater, FL 33763


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