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Workers looking for careers with a future would do well to consider health care, based on projections for western Wisconsin.

According to Scott Hodek, west-central region economist for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, the aging baby boomer population is creating a perfect storm in the demand for health care workers. On one hand, aging baby boomers will require more health care services.

“You’ve got a case of skyrocketing demand and it’s a high-skilled job,” Hodek said.

In addition, many of those retiring baby boomers will be leaving jobs in the health care industry, depleting the ranks of doctors, nurses and other health care workers. In the DWD’s latest employment projections for 2010-2020, west-central Wisconsin is expected to need 845 new registered nurses and more than 1,000 new home health aides.

“If you’re a skilled nurse, you can pretty much find a job anywhere,” Hodek said.

The DWD’s Fall 2014 survey of employers in the region ranked registered nurse as the hardest position to fill. Certified nursing assistant (CNA) made the top five. Physician assistant and physician were also in the top 10.

Nursing No. 1 at CVTC

It comes as no surprise, then, that health care programs at the Chippewa Valley’s higher education institutions are filled to capacity trying to meet the demand.

Nursing is the biggest program offered at Chippewa Valley Technical College, with 200 graduates per year earning associate degrees and more than 400 earning nursing assistant certificates. CVTC’s dean of health and emergency services, Shelly Olson, said that demand for those graduates is high.

“While it’s not the boom that it was in 2004 where we couldn’t put out enough fast enough, it’s always going to be there,” Olson said. “Health care is a necessity and the workers in health care are a necessity.”

She added that, depending on the field, some employers have more part-time opportunities than full-time ones, but for the most part, placement for health care graduates is excellent. Graduates often report between 90- and 100-percent employment within six months, depending on the program.

There is a year-and-a-half wait to get into CVTC’s nursing program. Adding capacity is not as simple as hiring more faculty. Olson said they are limited by the number of clinical placements available with area hospitals and nursing homes.

Students who do make it into the nursing program can expect to work hard, both in school and in their chosen field.

“It’s not an easy profession. There’s compassion fatigue. There are long hours. It’s stressful,” Olson said.

More than just nursing

While most everyone is familiar with nursing, she said those looking for careers in health care should remember there are many other fields in demand.

“Respiratory therapists are usually hired before they even graduate,” Olson said. “You don’t know what a respiratory therapist does until you have a relative or yourself who is in a hospital needing either breathing treaments or CPR, life-saving measures.” The program is much smaller than nursing, graduating between 11-16 respiratory therapists each year.

If there’s a safe bet for those looking to enter the health care workforce, Olson said it is nursing assistant.

“Almost anywhere you point your compass, you’ll find an opening,” she said. CNAs need only take a three-credit, one-semester course and then pass a state test. The entry-level job has high turnover — the starting wage was $11.56 an hour for 2013-2014 CVTC graduates — but CNAs will often continue their education and work their way up the pay scale.

Lindy Clark of Chippewa Falls is one of those students with a step-by-step plan. Having completed her first year in pre-nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, she is taking a CNA course at CVTC this summer. Clark plans to work as a nursing assistant to help pay for her bachelor’s degree. Once she is a registered nurse, she can work in that role while she pursues a graduate degree.

“My ultimate goal is to be a midwife. To get to that point, I have to start at the nursing level,” Clark said. After that, she’ll need to earn a master’s degree and then complete a post-graduate certified nurse midwife program. It’s a long road, but as a certified nurse midwife, she can expect a starting salary around $74,000 in Eau Claire County.

Not just for women

If the professions still bring to mind an exclusively female image, it is time to update that view, according to Deb Kjelstad, CVTC’s director of radiography.

“One-fourth of our graduates are male,” she said. “I think we’ve got the word out that it isn’t just for females anymore.”

Kjelstad believes increased awareness and new technologies are attracting more men to the field. With mobile MRI and CT units installed in semi trailers, one new job description would put both a radiography degree and a commercial driver’s license to work.

“They could scan and drive truck at the same time,” Kjelstad said.

While an associate degree will prepare a student to work as a registered nurse, Dr. Linda Young, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Science at UW-Eau Claire, said there is a growing demand for nurses with bachelor’s degrees.

The employment picture for all RNs is good — about 94 percent of graduates are either employed or continuing their education (85 percent find work right in Eau Claire) — but many area employers now require RNs to go on to earn their Bachelor of Science in nursing if they did not already have the degree when hired.

Competitive landscape

Entry into nursing programs is competitive. UWEC only has room for about 50 percent of the qualified nursing applicants on the Eau Claire campus each year. Young says funding for the College of Nursing and faculty positions is an issue given the state budget, but there is also a shortage of nursing faculty in Wisconsin and nationwide.

The mean age of nursing faculty in Wisconsin is 58. With the economy improving, many of those who delayed retirement will likely do so soon. Young said Wisconsin has a growing need for nurses with PhDs and doctor of nursing practice degrees (DNP). Nurse practitioners provide primary care, including diagnosing and treating patients and writing prescriptions. It can be hard to convince DNP-prepared nurses to go into teaching when they can earn more in clinical practice.

“PhD- and DNP-prepared nursing faculty may start out as assistant professors with a salary of around $70,000,” Young said. “On the other hand, if you have been working for a number of years as a nurse practitioner with a master’s or doctoral degree, your salary may start around $105,000 in clinical practice.”

A state grant called Nurses for WI has helped address the faculty shortage in Wisconsin, Young said. More than 55 awardees received funding or loan forgiveness toward their PhD, DNP or post-doctorate studies in return for their commitment to teach in a UW System nursing program for three years. That initiative ended June 30.

Therapy jobs on the rise

Dr. Julie Anderson, director of UWEC’s Health Careers Center, said those looking into health care careers can find opportunity beyond the familiar choices of physician and nurse, but not all professions are on the rise.

“Physical therapy, occupational therapy and physician assistant, those have become hot markets,” Anderson said. “Pharmacy was really big with UWEC students 10 years ago, but in the past two years student interest, at least on our campus, has declined.”

A 2011 Wisconsin Hospital Association report predicted a shortage of 2,000 doctors in the state by 2030. Rural areas are particularly hard hit.

The state of Wisconsin announced a $750,000 grant last December to help Mayo Clinic Health System train more family-care doctors in northwest Wisconsin. Dr. Randall Linton, president and CEO of Mayo’s northwest Wisconsin region, said the family medicine residency program will ramp up to training five doctors per year, and experience shows that training them here may keep them here.

“The more they understand the great opportunities that exist in this area and have their training experience here, there is a much higher likelihood that they will stay here for their practice at the end of that time,” Linton said.

The Medical College of Wisconsin will open new campuses in Green Bay this fall and Wausau in 2016 to address both the shortage of rural doctors and a dearth of mental health professionals in the state.

Not all health care careers involve direct patient care. Dr. Mel Kantor, chairman of UWEC’s Institute of Health Sciences, said a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental public health prepares a person to work as an environmental health specialist, or “registered sanitarian” as the job is known in Wisconsin. Those workers can find jobs inspecting restaurants and monitoring water quality in municipal swimming pools, lakes and water reclamation areas. Public health agencies focus on the big picture, treating the whole community.

“There are cancer registries and surveillance systems that monitor certain diseases to see if there are going to be flareups,” Kantor said. Professionals in that field typically have master’s degrees.

Job growth and salaries vary, but with an aging population and many workers retiring, health care should offer plenty of career opportunities for the foreseeable future.

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Dan Lea is the news director for Midwest Family Broadcasting in Eau Claire, which owns six radio stations in the Chippewa Valley.

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