Health care jobs still a bright spot Healthcare provides Rx for tough job market

It's one of the few areas that is growing during the recession.

A year-and-a-half into a recession, with metro Atlanta's unemployment rate at 9.6 percent and still climbing, the hiring continues in health care.

Hospitals, nursing homes, medical agencies and even schools continue to need workers with the right skills —- and administrative help to support them.

"Health care is hiring, and nursing is only part of the story," said Linda Matzigkeit, senior vice president at Children's Healthcare. "There are still sick kids to be cared for and Atlanta as a community is growing."

In the past year, the private sector in metro Atlanta has bled 137,700 jobs — including 16,800 in retail, 28,700 in administrative support and more than 30,000 in construction.

Yet health care added 5,000 jobs. Ambulatory care was up 2,300 jobs and hospital payrolls expanded by 1,500. As of Wednesday, there were 157 openings at Children's three hospitals and other facilities, Matzigkeit said.

The help wanted sign is out for medical researchers, nurses and therapists, but also software experts, cooks and office workers. Unlike two years ago, she said, nursing jobs account for less than one-quarter of the openings. One reason: Turnover has dropped amid the recession. And the economy has drawn many nurses from a stay-at-home lifestyle back into the job market.

Belle Cash, 41, of McDonough, went back to school, becoming a registered nurse less than three years ago. She worked at Henry Medical Center, then applied to Children's.

It took about three weeks to get hired, she said.

"I applied online on a Friday and I think it was Tuesday I had a phone interview. If I were in the job market without being a nurse, I'd be up the creek."

Yet the most in-demand jobs are physical, occupational and speech therapists —- known as "rehab" jobs.

On average, jobseekers outnumber openings by nearly six to one. But not in health care.

And the demand for workers isn't at just one hospital or in one region, said Candace Berk, president of Cirrus Allied in Norcross, a staffing agency specializing in placing people with rehab skills.

Such jobs require schooling, but many trained applicants can command $75,000 a year to start, she said. For rehab therapists willing to move, jobs are available around the country.

Summer Davis, 32, is one of the "travelers," as mobile contract workers are called.

In 2005, she worked in a Gwinnett County nursing home. She extended her stay from about three months to six because she liked the area, then left to try somewhere else.

"I believe just about every contract I've had, they've offered me a job," she said. "But I like to travel. I'm still single, and I haven't decided where I want to live. I figure, if you don't like it, you're only there a few months."

The sector has kept growing partly because it is seen as necessity, not a discretionary purchase that can be delayed, said Dean Baker, co-director, Center for Economic and Policy Research. Just as important to that choice, the consumer is often not the one who pays the service: Government picks up nearly half the tab, insurance companies a bit more than one-third.

Health care is not entirely immune from recession, he said. Some hospitals with specific financial problems have cut staff, and at some point the new job market could be saturated.

"It would surprise me if the rate of health care employment growth doesn't start to slow," Baker said.

But in the short-term, health care is one of the few props to a stumbling economy, Baker said: "I think of health care like a stimulus. It is keeping people employed."

It's also giving many people a shot at a second or even third career in a new field.

Dianne Hyman, 62, worked for decades as office staff in various houses of worship in Florida and Atlanta. After being laid off in December, the Marietta woman spent months tossing applications at job listings without a response.

She grew desperate, going to live with her sister, a nurse at Children's Healthcare. Her sister passed around some copies of Dianne's resume and, when cardiac services needed an administrative assistant, Dianne got an interview.

She was hired and started the job a month ago.