Even with Florida's unemployment rate at 11.5 percent, there are jobs to be had, economists and government employment experts say. But you need to know where to look.
What's in demand? Try home health aides. Or medical or dental assisting. Or nursing.
More than half of the fastest-growing occupations are in health care, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Health care, which provided 14.3 million jobs in 2008, is expected to add 3.2 million new jobs by 2018 — more than any other industry.
"I don't see any possibility that job growth will be anything less than strong in the health fields," says Don Bellante, an economics professor at the University of South Florida who specializes in labor issues.
Also among the high-growth jobs: nursing aides, dental hygienists, physical therapist assistants and aides, veterinarians and various medical technicians. Employment in every health care segment is expected to increase.
The catch: training. Area community colleges report record demand for health-related classes, so much so that many potential students are turned away. And some state-sponsored work force boards, including Worknet Pinellas, say they are running out of government money for job training programs.
The growth in health care jobs is due in large part to baby boomers, who will require more health care as they age.
And, as the bureau notes, demand for some health occupations also is being fueled by a growing reliance on lower-paid health workers to cut costs. Tasks previously performed by doctors and dentists, for instance, increasingly are being shifted to medical assistants, dental hygienists and physical therapist aides. Nurse practitioners or assistants now handle some of the less serious cases seen in emergency rooms.
The number of jobs for home health aides is expected to grow by 50 percent by 2018, according to bureau projections. Medical assistant jobs are expected to increase by 34 percent and physical therapist assistants by 33 percent over the same period.
Many of the jobs, however, are on the lower end of the salary spectrum. The median annual wage for home health aides, for example, was $20,460 in 2008.
"It's a trend that's already developed, but I expect that to continue," Bellante said. "You can increase the use of those people without spending a whole lot on them."
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As many of those high-growth occupations require less than four years of college, much of the training for them is taking place at area community colleges, which have seen robust interest and enrollment in their two-year health programs. Many are also enrolling in private career and technical colleges (see sidebar), though tuition is higher there.
St. Petersburg College officials have seen increased interest for many of its 11 health degree programs, especially physical therapy assisting, which is listed among the fastest-growing occupations.
Dr. Phil Nicotera, provost for SPC's Health Education Center, said another popular program is a recent addition: health care informatics. That field involves a mixture of information management, medical and business aspects of health care. Graduates can work, for instance, with electronic health records, a rapidly expanding area that is included in current health reform efforts.
How high is demand for courses?
Melania Yarosz, 25, of Oldsmar was told she may have to wait three years to get into SPC's radiology program. She applied in 2006 after earning her associate in arts degree from the college.
It didn't take nearly that long. Yarosz began her studies in January 2008 and graduated last month with her radiology degree.
Similarly, Hillsborough Community College has seen record numbers of applicants for many of its two-year programs, including sonography, radiation therapy, radiography, respiratory care and dental assisting.
"We turn away more than we accept — at least in nursing," said Dr. Amy Anderson, dean of Health, Wellness & Sports Technologies at HCC.
Anderson noted that the health programs attract a range of students, including those who have recently graduated from high school and older students who either have been away from the work force for years or are seeking new careers.
"I think it's a relatively fast way to get into the workforce and earn a solid living while doing something that is meaningful to them," she said.
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Nicotera is quick to point out, however, that health care hasn't been immune to the poor economy. Though the number of health care jobs has grown, the rate of growth has slowed in recent months. Some hospitals have even laid off workers.
"Jobs for new graduates are there, but they're a little more difficult to find right now," Nicotera said. "Many hospitals and major health providers have tightened their belts."
But he expects health care jobs to continue growing as consumers age. Many older workers have delayed retirement because of the poor economy, Nicotera said, but once they do leave the workforce, that too will increase demand for new workers.
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Jaimie Weber earned her associate's degree in nursing from HCC in May, and almost immediately landed a job at Pepin Heart Hospital in Tampa, where she works in its cardiac surgical critical care unit.
"I always have wanted to work in the health field," said Weber, 30, who returned to school to get her nursing degree in 2006 after running her own business.
Weber considered attending the University of South Florida, but decided community college was a better option.
"Less cost, less time involved, same outcome," she said.
Though Yarosz had to a wait awhile to get into SPC's radiology program, she didn't have to wait long to find a job. Less than two weeks after graduating, she got a job as an X-ray technician at Florida Sports Orthopedic and Spine Medicine in Palm Harbor.
Yarosz estimates that a third of her graduating radiology class of 24 students have already found work in their field. But in better economic times, that number would be much higher, she said.
"I consider myself lucky."
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330