While the economy lost 7.5 million positions during the 18-month recession, the health-care industry added doctors, nurses, and other hospital personnel. Together with the social assistance category, which includes day-care workers, career counselors, and similar positions, the sector will add more than 5.6 million employees and be the biggest job gainer by 2020, according to new projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Manufacturing is forecast to lose 73,000 jobs by then.
“The first baby boomer just turned 65 last year, so when it comes to health-care jobs, we haven’t seen nothing yet,” says Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York. Almost 87 million Americans, or one in four, will be 65 or older by 2050, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Health services require face time with patients, which means “these jobs are protected from the forces of globalization,” says Rupkey. “We can’t imagine a time when we’ll be able to outsource the job of a home health aide giving a senior a bath or helping with physical therapy.”
Openings in health care are broadly distributed geographically, even in economically distressed small towns where they often are “all that’s left,” says David Card, a director of the Labor Studies Program at the National Bureau of Economic Research. They also provide “pretty good” opportunities, particularly for women, he says. During the recession, health care added almost half a million positions, while construction, which typically employs more men, shed 1.1 million workers.
Sharon Rudolph, 64, is studying to be a registered nurse alongside classmates who had previously worked in real estate and banking, as well as one who owns a nail salon. The Fort Lauderdale resident was a radiologic technologist before she took a break in the 1990s to raise her family. Now she’s in a 27-month training program at the city’s Nova Southeastern University. “I felt I’d become more marketable once I get out,” says Rudolph, who has managed to keep her other licenses in diagnostic medical and cardiac sonography current. “I have to work twice as hard as some of the kids” to keep up with the coursework.
Registered nursing, which requires at least an associate degree, will have the largest growth of all U.S. occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, adding 711,900 jobs between 2010 and 2020, reaching a total of 3.4 million. The number of home health aides, who don’t need a high school diploma but require on-the-job training, will increase by 69 percent, to 1.7 million. Hiring of physicians and surgeons will rise by 24 percent, to 859,300, the bureau predicts.
While the additional jobs probably will lift employment, many pay low wages. That means these workers will be less able than employees in higher-paid industries to boost consumer spending. Yet health-care jobs may provide more stability than factory and construction work, which tends to fluctuate with the economy. According to BLS data that are seasonally unadjusted, the unemployment rate for health-services employees was 6 percent in December, compared with 16 percent for construction.
According to Charles Roehrig, director of the Altarum Center for Sustainable Health in Ann Arbor, Mich., every 10 jobs in health care ultimately generate an additional 12 elsewhere in the economy. If he’s right, then without the industry’s recent hiring growth, the unemployment rate would have been 9.5 percent in December, instead of 8.5 percent.