Health care help always needed

DeAnne Mignault of the Visiting Nurse Association of Boston, conducts a follow-up visit with Ann Boyle, 91. Care for the elderly is an area of growth in the health care industry. DeAnne Mignault of the Visiting Nurse Association of Boston, conducts a follow-up visit with Ann Boyle, 91. Care for the elderly is an area of growth in the health care industry. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / January 10, 2010

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Looking for a job? The health care industry needs more than a few good workers.

Health care has remained one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal US job market, and demand for health care workers is expected to continue to grow as the nation’s population ages. Across the country, nearly half of the 30 fastest-growing occupations through 2018 are in health care, according the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Boston area, considered one of the nation’s leading health care centers because of its concentration of hospitals, biotechnology firms, and pharmaceutical companies, also is experiencing job growth in the health care sector. In Suffolk County, where about 22 percent of the workforce is employed in health care and social assistance, 5,200 jobs have been added in these fields in the past year, according to the US labor bureau.

“People need health care, despite the economy,’’ said Teresa Prego, spokeswoman for Caritas Christi Health Care, which has about 1,000 job openings across its network of six hospitals and other providers in New England. Many of the openings are in nursing, home care, and medical technology.

Of course, like most industries, health care has taken a hit. Massachusetts hospitals cut more than 1,000 positions in 2008, and the Massachusetts Hospital Association estimates a similar number of cuts took place in 2009. Nursing jobs in Massachusetts - while projected to grow across the nation by 22 percent between 2008 and 2018 - also are scarce for the first time in years. Job vacancy rates fell to 4 percent in 2008 and were expected to be even lower for 2009, compared with a 10 percent vacancy rate in 2002.

But the situation is better than it was a year ago, said Karen Nelson, senior vice president of clinical affairs for the Massachusetts Hospital Association. She said the local health care job market is undergoing a “cautious thawing.’’

“Health care is still one of the best, most reliable sectors for work,’’ Nelson said.

Some health care jobs require people to spend years in school, pass exams, and meet other criteria. But many of the fastest growing jobs in the field don’t require years of specialized training. In fact, the greatest need for workers includes aides, assistants, and technicians - positions that don’t require extensive schooling:

■ At the top of the list of the nation’s fastest-growing health care occupations is home health aide, which is projected to have a 50 percent growth in employment from 2008 to 2018. It’s possible to become certified as a home health aide, helping disabled and elderly people with bathing, housework, and meals, in 15 weeks at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable.

Harbor Health Services Inc. in Dorchester usually has three or four openings for home health aides, who make $10 to $16 an hour assisting elderly people who might otherwise be in nursing homes. And the demand just keeps growing, said Mardi Esquivel, human resources director at Harbor Health, which is about to open a new elder center and employs about 65 home health aides.

“It’s not an easy job,’’ Esquivel said, “but people do really go home feeling good at the end of the day.’’

■ Newton-Wellesley Hospital has an eight-week training program for patient care assistants, who make $14.34 an hour at the hospital and work under the direction of nurses to perform duties such as taking vital signs and drawing blood. MassBay Community College, which has campuses in Framingham, Ashland, and Wellesley, offers a two-year associate’s degree for radiologic technologists. Radiologic technologists make an average of about $69,000 a year in the Boston area to provide imaging services such as CT scans, MRIs, and mammographies, according to the US labor bureau.

■ Medical assistants, the 16th fastest-growing occupation in the country with 34 percent projected growth in employment between 2008 to 2018, do everything from schedule appointments to remove sutures. Medical assistants make about $35,000 a year in the Boston area, according to the US labor bureau. Massasoit Community College in Canton has a one-year certificate program for medical assistants.

Medical assistants are in demand at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which has about 400 open jobs, said director of staffing Laurie Peck.

Peck has two recommendations for people considering going into health care: get to know people who are currently working in the field and volunteer in the area you’re interested in.

Beth Israel has a robust volunteer program that can give potential nurses or technicians a sense of what the job may entail, Peck said.

“That could be one way to experience a hospital setting,’’ she said.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at