Community college students have proven themselves to be smart and savvy consumers over the past decade.
Seeing the promise of good jobs with secure futures, students young and old have flooded into health care programs, striving to become a health care professional — a radiological technician, perhaps, or maybe a dental hygienist, a registered nurse or a physical therapy assistant.
In short, the students went where the jobs were, or where they were predicted to be.
The proof is in the numbers. This year’s Community College Week annual Top 100 Associate Degree Producers report and analysis shows that over the past ten years, the number of associate degrees conferred by community colleges in health professions jumped by 111 percent. In 2009-10, community colleges awarded 177,729 associate degrees in the health care fields, a record number.
The number of one-year certificates grew even faster, leaping by an astounding 240 percent between 1999-2000 and 2009-10, the CCWeek analysis shows. (See ANALYSIS: Bad Times, Good Times Degree Awards Set Record Despite Rocky Educational Landscape).
But an unfortunate thing happened on the path to prosperity and professional accomplishment. In 2008, the recession hit with full force and has yet to recover, and a sick economy means that jobs in many health care fields are becoming difficult to find.
A growing number of graduates who believed their health care credential would be a ticket to a job are finding themselves with a passport to the unemployment line.
“Graduates have to be very persistent,” said Patricia Gray, vice-president for health care education initiatives at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio. “Right now, it is very difficult to find a job. The students thought they would have an easy time finding jobs. When they graduate, the jobs aren’t as plentiful as before.”
So what happened? Since 1998, officials have been predicting a shortage of health care workers, especially registered nurses. Nurses were getting older, the story went, and soon would retire, creating a plethora of job openings that needed to be filled immediately.
But then came the recession. Many older workers who were approaching retirement had to keep working as their 401k’s cratered. More people lost their jobs and their health benefits, sending hospital visits on a downward path. The demand for health care, and health care workers, followed the trend.
At the same time, a shrinking job market was flooded with recent college graduates. There is more competition for fewer jobs.
Researchers insist the shortage of health care workers is sure to return. The nursing workforce continues to age — an estimated 900,000 nurses, more than a third of the total workforce — are in their 50s, and will eventually have to retire.
The demand for health care is also expected to rebound. Baby boomers will need more health care as they get older, increasing demand for professionals like respiratory therapists and home health care workers. If President Obama’s health care plans survive legal and legislative challenges, many of the 40 million Americans now without health care will have it, further increasing the demand for health care. The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics projects a 20 percent increase in job openings in health care fields between now and 2018.
That means that even as jobs are scarce now, colleges continue to look beyond the horizon, providing training in a wide variety of health care fields, and students continue to flock to them.
“We are continuously partnering with the facilities in the community,” Gray said. “Our president has recognized that health care will be a big employer in northeast Ohio. As much as we can, we try to meet their needs. We are trying to learn from them.”
Gray said Cuyahoga enrolls about 2,000 students in allied health care programs, which are important community assets. About 85 percent of the college’s graduates remain in the Cleveland area, so the college is a crucial supplier of health care workers. In 2009-10, the college graduated 636 students in the health professions and 319 registered nurses.
The college is now expecting a surge in a relatively new health care field — health care information technology management. CCC heads the Midwest Community College HIT Consortium, a group of 17 community colleges in 10 states committed to training 5,400 students in this burgeoning field.
The training, funded with a $14.5 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is intended to help health care providers better manage patient care by digitizing their records. Students will undergo six months of non-credit training and emerge with a certificate in one of six fields intended to bridge the gap between health care and information technology. For eligible students, the training is free.
In Pittsburgh, the Community College of Allegheny County is offering a similar program. Classes begin in August. CCAC already offers training in 22 different health care fields. The college awarded 633 degrees in the health professions in 2009-10, the seventh-highest total in the country, and a 7 percent increase from the year before. It awarded 412 registered nursing degrees, the fourth highest total in the country.
Richard Allison, CCAC dean of academic affairs, said the demand for health care workers near the college’s Pittsburgh campus remains strong. It’s a reflection of a city that has been transformed from an industrial powerhouse into a hub of health care and information technology. The city’s largest employer is no longer a steel mill; it’s UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“The job situation is really a regional issue,” he said. “The national statistics do not necessarily reflect what is going on in individual regions. I think we see that in the health care fields.”
For CCAC and other colleges, providing enough clinical settings to satisfy all the students who require on-the-job training remains a paramount challenge. Most settings can accommodate only a handful of students. With enrollments continuing to climb, some larger colleges, with thousands of students, need a hundred or more clinical settings every year.
“That is our number one challenge,” Allison said. “We have to work very hard at maintaining relationships. We use a couple of hundred clinical sites. They range from doctor’s offices to large hospitals. It’s a constant challenge.”
Amy C. Pettigrew, dean of nursing at Miami Dade College, agrees that finding clinical settings is a daunting challenge, especially as the proliferation of for-profit colleges creates more competition for clinical slots. Miami Dade graduated 1,115 students in the health professions in 2009-10 and 677 nursing students.
The college has had to be creative in finding clinical settings, sending students to places like day care centers and homeless shelters to gain their clinical experience.
“These are atypical settings, but they provide good experience,” she said. “It is really more [like] the type of place they will end up working. The students have to change their expectations. Very few will work in an acute care setting.”
Miami Dade recently launched a program intended to help RNs with an associate degree in nursing earn a bachelor’s degree. Such a degree will allow students to gain skills for advanced nursing practice leadership, management and education positions.
But what about the shortage of jobs? Pettigrew believes that is a temporary phenomenon.
“As the economy has caught up with health care, the pendulum has been swinging,” she said. “People are getting older. Nurses are getting older. And if the president’s health care plan takes hold, a whole lot of people will have health insurance, and we’ll see a shortage like we’ve never seen before.”
It’s YOUR TURN: CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: Are graduates in health care fields at your college finding it difficult to get jobs?