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Rising number of health care workers have less than 4-year degree, study shows

| Thursday, July 24, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

The aging American population is creating more job opportunities for health care workers with less than a four-year college degree.

The number of health care workers who have a bachelor's degree or higher grew at a slower rate during the past decade than the less educated, according to a study released on Thursday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

But the study found that wages declined for those workers who didn't achieve a bachelor's degree or higher. Economists said wages were being pressured by the increased demand for these jobs as the recession prompted some workers to seek new careers in the medical field.

More workers are needed in health care as a growing elderly population demands more help from nurses, medical assistants, and home health and personal care aides, said Martha Ross, an institution fellow and co-author of the report.

“Occupations with the biggest numbers and biggest growth are those that provide the most hands-on care,” Ross said. “Health care is a labor-intensive field, even with all of the increases in technology.”

The number of workers with less than a bachelor's degree in health care jumped by 46 percent to 7.4 million between 2000 and 2009-11, the study found. The number of health care jobs grew by 39 percent during that period.

But wages for those workers declined by 14 percent over the decade, the Brookings report showed.

While many jobs were added at hospitals, clinics, doctor offices, nursing homes and agencies over the past decade, a larger number of people were searching for jobs that didn't require a bachelor's degree or higher, said John Bowblis, a health economist at Miami University of Ohio who was not involved in the Brookings research.

“What has happened is that the supply of jobs has increased, but the demand for those jobs has increased even more because a large number of people (were) going out and getting certifications in health care,” he said, noting that employers can keep wages low when there is higher demand.

The study, which compared Census data from 2000 with data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey for 2009 to 2011, found the same trends in Pittsburgh.

The seven-county region experienced a 28 percent increase in the number of health care workers with less than a bachelor's degree. The region's 58,713 workers accounted for 50 percent of all health care workers.

While the median salary of less-educated workers fell 10 percent to $32,000, the changes varied by job. Personal care aides, the lowest-paid workers with less than a bachelor's degree, had a median income of $21,000 in the 2009-11 period, down 3 percent in 2000. The number of workers in those jobs increased 234 percent in the same period.

Registered nurses with less than a bachelor's degree had the highest median salary — $55,000 — and experienced a wage jump of 7 percent. Those jobs declined 7 percent.

“Even though there was increasing demand for (less-educated) workers in the health care occupations we examined, most of them don't require extensive training, so there's a fairly ready supply,” Ross said.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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