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Treating an increasingly graying America
More needed in medical field as population ages
By Tiffeny Owens
The Decatur Daily

John Godbey/The Decatur Daily
Calhoun Community College first-year nursing students Matthew Lash and Jason Hancock practice bathing a patient dummy.

More health care workers, from physicians to nurses and physical therapists, will be needed in the decades ahead to take care of the country's aging population.

The health care and social assistance sector is projected to gain the most jobs — 5.6 million — of any employment sector by 2020, according to U.S. Labor Department projections. That represents 34.5 percent growth, followed by health care practitioners and technical occupations, which are predicted to grow 25.9 percent.

"People are living longer, and our birthrates are going down," said Mark Branon, Calhoun Community College's Allied Health Department chairman. "The problem we're facing is twofold: We're going to need more health care providers to take care of this huge group of baby boomers, and the health care providers in that generation will be retiring and have to be replaced."

The nation's elderly population will more than double in size from 2005 through 2050, as the baby boom generation enters the traditional retirement years, according to Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.

At the same time, the number of working-age Americans and children will grow slower than the elderly population and will shrink as a share of the total population. According to U.S. Labor Department projections, the "prime-age" working group, ages 25 to 54, is projected to drop to 63.7 percent of the 2020 labor force.

"We're going to need more employees across the broad spectrum of health care, from doctors to nurses to technicians and physical therapists," Branon said. "There's going to be a real need for several positions like EMTs, phlebotomists and rehabilitation therapists."

Calhoun educates hundreds of nurses and other medical professionals each year, with more than 1,000 students in its nursing and allied health departments combined, Branon said. In January, Calhoun's dual enrollment program was named one of 20 finalists in the workforce development category of the 2013's Bellwether Award, one of the highest academic honors a community college can receive. It was recognized for its proposal "A Solution to the Healthcare Needs of the Graying American Population."

"We've done a good job recruiting people into the medical field, but we need to do a better job exposing younger students to careers available," Branon said.

Currently, many of Calhoun's health care students are back in college to educate themselves to embark on a second career, he said. Several students in their 40s and 50s are taking classes after being laid off from industrial jobs, he said.

Another aspect of the field to consider is constant technical changes. Branon said Calhoun's faculty and staff are not only teaching students the latest treatments with new technology but are constantly learning themselves.

"Each year, it's seems like there's a new, better way to treat patients, new devices to save people's lives," Branon said. "So it's even more important to educate and train people so they will be ready to fill those places left behind the retiring health care workers. I think a lot of people forget that there's more to health care than just doctors."

Tiffeny Owens can be reached at 256-340-2440 or towens@decaturdaily.com.

Job outlook to 2020

The number of health care jobs are projected to grow by 34.5 percent by 2020. Other employment projections:

  • Total employment is projected to grow by 14.3 percent during the decade, resulting in 20.5 million new jobs.

  • Slower population growth and a decreasing overall labor force participation rate are expected to lead to slower civilian labor force growth from 2010-20.

  • Four occupations expected to add the most employment are registered nurses (712,000), retail salespersons (707,000), home health aides (706,000) and personal care aides (607,000). All had large employment in 2010 and are expected to grow faster than the average of 14.3 percent.

  • One-third of projected fastest growing occupations are related to health care, reflecting expected increases in demand as the population ages and the health care and social assistance industry grows.

U.S. Labor Department

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