Minneapolis — Emily Zabor graduated with a master's degree in biostatistics from the University of Minnesota this year, right in the middle of the worst job markets in decades.
No problem. "I expected to have good prospects," Zabor said. "I knew it was a field that was growing."
Even before graduating, Zabor accepted a $75,000-a-year job at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, helping to design and analyze clinical studies. In fact, all 21 students in Zabor's program have found work, with drug companies, medical device firms and public health agencies.
After a tough couple of years, healthcare hiring is up again. While the pace of new jobs remains far below that of a few years ago, healthcare organizations have more job postings up right now than they have for months.
For example, Allina Hospitals and Clinics, the biggest group in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, is looking to fill some 900 jobs. That's not far from the peak of four or five years ago, when there were 1,000 openings and signing bonuses were common. Fairview Health Services, the second-biggest group, has more than 500 openings.
But the recovery remains tenuous and uneven. While some openings are for food workers, lab techs, and registered nurses, in many cases employers are looking for specialized skills. Experienced nurses are in demand, while fresh nursing graduates continue to struggle to find jobs.
Many of the job categories are new, such as information technology specialists and data analysts, shaped by federal and state reform and demands by public and private insurers for the industry to cut waste, improve outcomes and generally do more with less.
"It's better," Allina recruitment director David Johnson said of the hiring landscape. "But different."
Hospitals and clinics used to sail through recessions unscathed. But a confluence of events made the last slump different: cuts in government programs, a squeeze by private insurers and the proliferation of high-deductible plans, which caused many consumers to think twice before seeking medical care.
Nationally, healthcare job growth has stayed below 2% year over year through 2009 and 2010.
While the aging population means hospitals and clinics will need more doctors and nurses, newer positions typically associated with manufacturing are emerging as healthcare goes through the kind of upheaval the auto industry went through not so long ago.
"We want a highly reliable, efficiently manufactured unit of service," said Daniel Zismer, who teaches health policy and management at the University of Minnesota. "We also want a compassionate system, but who doesn't?"
The federal government is requiring hospitals and doctors' offices to have electronic medical records by 2014 and is providing millions of dollars for the conversion. Trouble is, "there's a real shortage of people" to make it happen, said Julie Jacko, who teaches health informatics at the University of Minnesota.
Just defining the parameters of these new jobs can present a headache.
"We're seeing a lot of process-improvement roles," said Johnson of Allina. "The challenge is we don't always know what we want because the roles are new."
Among other things, Allina is looking for data analysts and performance improvement analysts, both at average salaries of $74,000.
Even traditional healthcare roles are changing as the industry prepares for federal health reform to kick in fully in 2014, when a crush of newly insured Americans are expected to enter the system. Many clinics are creating teams in which physicians will care for a greater number of patients, with help from nurse practitioners, physician assistants and other professionals.
In this environment, experience is prized. "The roles of nurse practitioner and physician assistant are growing," said Karen Mulder, director of coordinated care practice at University of Minnesota Physicians.
Chen May Yee writes for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis)/McClatchy.