Nursing tops best career bets

( When Neenah resident Robin Holte left behind a 25-year career in interior design to return to college and become a registered nurse, job security was the furthest thought on her mind.

“What drove me more was I wanted to work in an industry where I would make more of an impact helping people and caring for them,” said Holte, 53, who joined the field 7½ years ago and has spent most of her second career in surgery at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton.

Holte’s career change was a sound one. Health care jobs have remained strongest throughout the recession and the recovery, said Denis Winters, chief labor economist with the state Department of Workforce Development.

State and federal labor data shows demand for registered nurses growing through 2018 and likely beyond as the nation’s population ages and the need for health care services rises. Occupational therapists, personal care assistants and certified nursing assistants also are projected as booming career paths.

“From an occupational point of view, the projections show they will continue to be strong here on out and certainly over the next 10 years,” Winters said.

Labor shortage

Labor shortages and availability of skilled workers is a growing concern among many business sectors — including the health care field — as more baby boomers retire and fewer people are available to replace them.

The baby boomer generation traditionally is defined as individuals born between 1946 and 1964. The oldest boomers turned 65 in 2011. There were 80 million boomers born between 1946 and 1965, Winters said, so there will be a surge in retirements in the next 10 to 20 years.

“What it boils down to is the aging boomers and retirements are going to affect health care in two areas,” he said. “On the demand side, as people get older, that will place more demand on health care services. And as boomers retire, you’re taking a significant number of people out of the workforce.”

Filling the need

Second-career seekers appear to be helping meet today’s staffing needs among healthcare providers.

“We’ve seen a lot of people who have decided to go back to school for one reason or another,” said Kristin Matthias, an employment career specialist with Appleton-based ThedaCare. “Some came in from manufacturing or some had a two-year degree who went back to complete a four-year degree for a more advanced job.”

Student ranks at two- and four-year colleges across the country have grown in recent years with people in search of a new career or in need of learning new skills following a job loss.

Some colleges, including the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, have implemented accelerated degree programs that cater to people like Neenah’s Holte.

Holte took advantage of UWO’s accelerated program for nursing. She enrolled in 2003, the first year it was offered, and received a bachelor’s degree in nursing two years later. Nearly 500 people have graduated from the progam since it began.

The program included one year of intense schoolwork, which required Holte to attend courses seven days a week. She also could not work, a condition of the program, but her husband and family supported her decision.

“All the sacrifices were worth it,” Holte said. “I’m much happier today.”

Searching for workers

Even with students pursuing a second career in the health care field, only a fraction of the need for workers is being filled.

Matthias, the employment career specialist at ThedaCare, is charged with finding qualified people for difficult-to-fill positions, including pharmacy specialists, therapists, information technology professionals, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and administrators.

“On the tough-to-fill positions, it may take up to a year to find the right person,” she said, adding national searches are necessary for some jobs.

Tom Veeser, chief nursing officer for Menasha-based Affinity Health System and vice president of patient care services at St. Elizabeth Hospital, said partnerships with colleges and universities also are effective at ensuring a pipeline of qualified applicants, especially for hard-to-fill jobs.

“Affinity has partnered with UWO for exactly this purpose,” he said.

“We can recruit specific students and encourage our staff to engage with them.”

As health systems adopt efficiency processes based on lean manufacturing principles, Veeser said it will become imperative for people to understand how those systems operate.

“There needs to be a better understanding of how someone’s work can affect a larger organization’s quality and outcomes,” he said. “There also needs to be more global awareness of how an individual can help make a difference in a larger organization.”