Snag 5 top health care jobs with an associate degree

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Dave Echols has spent more than four decades installing and maintaining medical equipment like defibrillators and ventilators.

More than 4 million health care jobs are expected to be created through 2022 – more than in any other industry – according to a 2014 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"I have never, ever thought about a loss of a job in this field and then you can go anywhere and get hired," says Echols, director of biomedical services at AEI Medical Equipment Services in Houston. It's not uncommon for him to be offered a job when he travels for work.

He also train interns from Houston Community College, where he participated in a medical maintenance pilot educational program in the 1970s.

Individuals can typically obtain the following health care jobs, including medical equipment repairer positions, with an associate degree. Some may require a license or certification as well. All are in demand and earned high spots on the U.S. News 100 Best Jobs of 2015 rankings.

Dental hygienist, No. 5

Median salary: $71,000

Dental hygienists clean teeth, examine patients and educate them on how to maintain good oral health, such as how to floss properly.

These professionals work with patients not just on their dental health, but their overall health, says Andrew Cornell, dean of allied health at Northern Virginia Community College. "Because bad infections can come out of your teeth, and dental hygienists can nip that in the bud on the front end."

In dental hygiene – and any other health profession – it's important students choose an accredited degree program, Cornell says, because otherwise they may not be able to sit for the exams that are required to earn the credentials needed for practice.

Registered nurse, No. 9

Median salary: $66,000

"I was a combat medic out of the Army, and I went in thinking I had a lot of knowledge. Nursing school is a different animal," says Tracy Moseley, a pediatric nurse and 2011 graduate of the nursing associate degree program at Northern Virginia Community College.

Her work in the rigorous program paid off: It took her about two weeks to find a job after she graduated.

While an associate degree is usually enough for entry-level jobs, a bachelor's degree or higher is often necessary for administrative positions, the BLS notes. There are many paths for nurses to earn their bachelor's degree, says Patricia Jenkins, dean of nursing at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tennessee.

Some programs are online or partially online, she says, and some may allow students to earn their associate degree and bachelor's at the same time at two different institutions through dual enrollment programs.

Diagnostic medical sonographer, No. 12

Median salary: $66,000

Diagnostic medical sonographers take images of a patient's organs and tissues.

"It might be for a pregnant mom to show them images of the baby; it might be for a guy with gallstones and you're trying to show where they are in the body. It isn't just babies," says Cornell, of the Virginia community college.

Sonographers need to have a good grasp of math and physics to fully understand the craft, he says.

Like with most health care professionals, how they communicate and develop relationships with patients is also important.

Occupational therapy assistant, No. 19

Median salary: $55,000

Occupational therapy assistants work under occupational therapists to help patients achieve the highest possible quality of life.

Budding occupational therapy assistants at Northern Virginia Community College spend part of the program working in a lab that is set up like an apartment, where they learn how to assist people in daily living skills, whether it's dressing, going to the bathroom or using a kitchen​, says Cornell.

Medical equipment repairer, No. 28

Median salary: $44,000

Medical equipment repairers – also known as biomedical equipment technicians – typically earn an associate degree in biomedical technology or engineering, according to the BLS.

As medical equipment has become more complex, so has the job of a technician, says Morteza Sameei, director of science and engineering technologies at Houston Community College Northeast.

Without technicians to properly maintain equipment, a patient's life could be at risk. For example, medication may be given to a patient through equipment controlled by a computer​ and many machines operate over Wi-Fi – technicians need to ensure these systems are ​running smoothly.

Individuals considering these jobs should note that they often have another benefit.

"A lot of these positions are 24/7 positions so they allow for nontraditional work schedules," says Kristen​ Fox, director of human resources for Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Washington. That flexibility can be important for those balancing family and work.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips, news and more in the U.S. News Paying for Community College center.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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