Julie Sneider
The View from Here

Health care industry not recession proof

By - Dec 6th, 2010 04:00 am

For the past decade, Wisconsin’s health care industry has been begging bright high school and college graduates to consider jobs in health care.

Faced with a boomer-age workforce nearing retirement and an overall population that’s getting older and needing more health care services, hospitals in particular have actively encouraged young people with good grades in math and science to pursue degrees in fields such as nursing, physical or occupational therapy, pharmacy and radiology.

Photo by Reza Vaziri via Creative Commons, Flickr.com

Finding enough nurses to fill vacancies in hospitals, home health care agencies, public health departments and nursing homes has been of a particular concern. Even up to 2007 –before the recession hit Wisconsin in full force — the state’s hospitals were offering large sign-on bonuses and recruiting internationally to fill nursing vacancies.

Hearing the call to a promising employment outlook, students responded in droves. Nursing education programs at University of Wisconsin campuses, the state’s technical schools and private colleges and universities faced waiting lists.  Responding to a demand for pharmacists, Concordia University in Mequon invested in opening the state’s second pharmacy school.

Even as Wisconsin’s overall workforce shrunk – there are 64,600 fewer jobs in the state today than a decade ago – the health care industry offered as close to a guarantee for employment upon graduation as any college student could hope for.

But as it turns out, even an industry that relies on the predictability of people getting old and sick couldn’t escape the Great Recession when it comes to hiring.

“What’s troublesome is that, right at the moment, there’s no movement in jobs,” says Judith Warmuth, a registered nurse with a Ph.D. and vice president of workforce issues for the Wisconsin Hospital Association. “For so long we’ve been hearing that hospitals are facing serious shortages of workers, and now that’s been postponed.”

Warmuth feels for 2010 graduates who haven’t been able to find work. She’s also concerned about anecdotal reports of graduates leaving for better employment prospects in other states.

Hiring at Wisconsin hospitals actually hit a wall after the recession of 2007-2008 was declared technically “over.” In addition to nurses and other health care workers putting off retirement, the impact of unemployment on the demand for health care services put a damper on hiring at hospitals.

Photo by Eddie Griffiths via Creative Commons, Flickr

But WHA anticipates health care hiring will pick back up quickly when the recovery takes a firm hold in Wisconsin. Health care workers who’ve been waiting to retire will want to do so, and the unemployed who’ve put off getting medical care will seek those services as soon as they find jobs, thus increasing demand.

“We have an older workforce caring for patients now, but we expect turnover in the near future as economic conditions become more favorable to retirement,” Warmuth says.

For example, 46 percent of nurses renewing their licenses this year were over the age of 50, Warmuth notes.

“Nursing is a very physically demanding job,” she says. “So as nurses age, there will come a time when they physically won’t be able to do the work.”

While nurses have been the No. 1 hiring concern of hospitals for the past several years, the WHA report notes that there are other potential shortages, with more than 20 percent of laboratory technologists, medical records technicians and pharmacists working in hospitals are at or near the retirement age.

Wisconsin also will need a greater diversity of health care workers, especially in licensed occupations. Not only is the state’s population aging, it’s growing more racially and ethnically diverse, but such diversity is not reflected in the health care workforce, Warmuth says.

“In terms of workforce, we’re no where near what we need to reflect the diversity of the patient population,” she says. One solution, she suggests, is for hospitals to create ways to interest minority students, now in middle and high school, to start thinking about future careers in health care.

As for those recent graduates of health care-related degree programs and students currently enrolled, Warmuth’s message is to not lose heart. While the economic downturn taught us that no profession or occupation can guarantee employment, long-term demographics on aging indicate that the need for nurses and other health care professions will rebound.

“We’ve had a message for a long time that health care offers great occupations and great jobs,” Warmuth says. “I feel badly that we’re in a place where all those people that we’ve encouraged to go into those careers are now feeling discouraged.”

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