The Employment Outlook Remains Strong in Health Care
In many respects, the phrase ‘jobless recovery’ still applies to the landscape in Western Mass. But one key sector where that term doesn’t fit, or at least to the same degree, is health care. Indeed, shortages exist in many specialities, and hiring remains steady across the field. This situation presents opportunities for job seekers and career changers, but many positions require degress and completion of challenging programs.
In the midst of a still-sluggish economy that, overall, is adding jobs at a frustratingly slow pace, Cathy Dow-Royer paints a significantly rosier picture.
“We’re seeing an increase in the number of students coming through,” said Dow-Royer, director of the Occupational Therapy program at American International College. “A lot of students are interested in medical fields like occupational therapy, and they’re seeing no problems getting jobs at all.”
Overall employment trends are packed with good news for the health care sector. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26% of all new jobs created by the nation’s economy between 2008 and 2018 will be in health care and social assistance — a broad category encompassing hospitals, nursing and residential-care facilities, and individual and family social services.
Those fields overall are expected to expand by about 24% over that 10-year period — an increase of about 4 million jobs — driven largely by an aging population and longer life expectancy in the U.S.
David Miller, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Rehabilitation Studies at Springfield College, cited data from the same report as he talked optimistically about this sector and its future. He noted that, for specialties represented in his institution’s roster of programs, the numbers are often even better — 39% for physician assistants, 37% for athletic trainers, 30% for physical therapists, 26% for occupational therapists, 21% for substance-abuse counselors, 19% for rehabilitation counselors, and 19% for speech and language pathologists.
As a result — at least in Springfield College’s case — young people mulling career options are increasingly giving health care serious consideration. “Enrollment in our [health] programs a few years ago was in the 500s, then the 600s, then the 700s, and now the 800s, so we’ve had steady, incremental growth,” Miller said.
“One of the reasons for that,” he continued, “is that prospective students and their families see that there are very good opportunities for employment on the other end — and that is, in fact, the case for 100% of our graduates, or very near that.”
Many of these programs require some clinical rotations or other field work, which exposes students and employers to each other, often greasing the tracks to a full-time job, he added. “Once they’re there, and they like the job and the employer likes them, our students are often offered employment in that setting. It’s a great opportunity for employers to work with our students and supervise them during their training.”
These employment success stories are being echoed across the region, in a wide variety of medical disciplines. But in many cases, job seekers must complete much more education and training than in the past, and need to be more flexible about where they want to work. But in most cases, the end result — a steady, good-paying job — is more than worth the effort and expense.
Outside the Office
According to Dow-Royer, one reason her department’s graduates are experiencing a solid hiring outlook is because occupational therapy has expanded its reach into so many areas of health care.
“Hospital outpatient rehabilitation is one area of practice, as well as prevention and chronic care management,” she said, which can include care at home, at skilled-nursing facilities, and elsewhere. “We’re working in primary care, with intensive care units, we’ll always be involved in mental health, and then there are extremity programs — working with doctors doing surgery on hands and arms, and getting people back to work again.”
Miller agreed. “To some extent, this is not necessarily hospital-based,” he said. “Some of the robustness is due to a shift away from bricks and mortar, from acute-care hospitals, into community-based settings. Home care, for instance, is projecting a 46% increase.
“There are rich opportunities — I don’t mean fiscally rich, but robust opportunities — in geriatrics,” he continued, citing the ever-advancing age of the Baby Boom generation, many of whom are living longer with chronic medical conditions than ever before. “Many of us are crossing that threshold into our 60s. People are living longer and want to be active and well and continue to work.”
“Even in this economy, we have been measurably growing,” she said. “It’s been slow but steady growth, and as we have entered new lines of business and marketed a variety of products, we’re looking for a trained workforce to come in and do these jobs. It’s getting more and more specialized. Medicaid product requirements are very different from Medicare products, and so on.”
That means looking for employees with a variety of skill sets, Ostrowski explained. For instance, “we have this brand-new role today — it’s a Medciaid community outreach leader, and we have a huge need for people who are bilingual. It was very difficult for us to fill this position. It took us almost six months to find someone with some knowledge of medicine with communication skills, who could work with members, someone we could teach the plan to and have them hit the ground running.”
At a recent seminar in Springfield on health-insurance reform (see story, page 32), state Rep. Michael Finn, D-West Springfield, said lawmakers recognize a shifting of jobs across the health care landscape, and have created a workforce-development fund that helps people working in struggling health care fields to transfer into areas with healthier employment rates.
In addition, he noted the state’s chronic shortage of primary-care physicians, exacerbated by pay disparities with other specialties and the five-year-old mandate that every citizen must carry insurance, creating access issues at doctors’ offices. In response, the state is exploring options such as loan-forgiveness programs and regional-disparity payments to try to broaden the pool of medical students entering primary care.
Back to School
While opportunities in many fields are expanding, however, education requirements are increasing as well. Occupational therapy, for example, is now typically a master’s-level program, while incoming physical therapists almost universally need a doctorate today. Even careers that once required just an associate’s degree now demand a four-year track of study.
Ostrowski’s “other hat,” as she called it, is coordinator of the Health Services Administration degree program at Elms College. “I teach mostly students who have an associate’s degree in some form — it may be occupational therapy assistant, nursing assistant, physical therapy assistant, dental hygienist — but most of these jobs we’re talking about need a bachelor’s degree just to be looked at.”
However, through a partnership between Elms and Holyoke Community College, these students can complete their bachelor’s degrees in less than two years through a Saturday program, making the track ideal for students who need to work or support a family while moving toward greater career opportunity.
“The tuition is the HCC tuition structure, but they get the degree from Elms College, so it’s a great opportunity for people to come into the health care field who have only an associate’s degree, but need to get their bachelor’s degree quickly.”
“From skilled-nursing facilities to the managed-care environment to teaching hospitals to rehab facilities, there are just so many different places where people can work,” Ostroski said. “The goal of the program is to give people experience across the entire industry so they can get an idea of what role they want to have, and then prepare them to take on that role. As soon as they get that bachelor’s degree, their salary goes up significantly.”
But it’s more than salary, Miller said. For those willing to make the necessary commitment to education, the result is usually a job that’s both well-paying and personally gratifying.
“There are wonderful opportunities — good jobs with good benefits — and if you look at job satisfaction, these are people who like some control over their day, respect, and work that makes a meaningful difference in someone’s life,” he said. “These are really positive things.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]