Where Tomorrow's Jobs Are: Health Care and Green Tech

Restarting America's Job Machine
Restarting America's Job Machine

One of the places helping to create a new generation of American jobs can be found behind a row of quiet, brown office buildings in South Plainfield, N.J. That's where Petra Solar's brand-new 21st century factory is whirring to life, putting together hundreds of solar panels to produce clean energy for New Jerseyans.

Last year, Petra Solar was a bare-bones operation with 15 employees. But now, with a $200 million contract to provide New Jersey electric utility PSE&G (PEG) with solar-generated electricity, it has already completed 20,000 solar panels that PSEG is installing on electric poles throughout the state. The utility has plans to put up a total of 200,000 of Petra Solar's panels. The company's manufacturing facility has ramped up production and is hiring at a torrid pace. Today, it has 130 employees, and if demand increases it could end the year with as many as 260.

"We are fully committed to producing clean energy for the citizens of this state and expand out into other states, and also the world," says Shihab Kuran, CEO of Petra Solar, who founded the company less than four years ago.

Flurry of Activity

Petra Solar is just one of a host of green-energy companies around the nation that President Obama points to as the engine of new jobs in the country. In his recent travels around the nation, one of his first stops was at a Siemens (SI) wind-turbine plant in Fort Madison, Iowa, where Obama said legislation "will ignite new industries, spark new jobs in towns like this and make America more energy independent."

Indeed, as the Obama administration ramps up its own efforts to reduce America's dependence on fossil fuels via tax credits, the green jobs are growing. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts that such jobs will continue to grow in the coming 10 years.

Yet, even with the flurry of activity at these green-energy factories, the number of new jobs is still small when compared to the 8.5 million that have been lost in just the last couple of years. Economists worry that the pace of recovery isn't going to be strong enough to create the new jobs needed to offset the large-scale losses during the Great Recession, especially among the lower-income segment of the population.

The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University released a report in February that analyzed labor conditions among 10 different income groups. In its analysis, those with household incomes of $150,000 or more had an unemployment rate of 3.2% in the fourth quarter of 2009. However, at the lower end of the spectrum, those with annual household incomes of $12,499 or less had a jobless rate of 30.8%. The group above that, with incomes of $12,500 to $20,000, had an unemployment rate of 19.1%.

However, the government's forecast for the fastest growing jobs shows that some careful choices on training and education could help people secure jobs in some of the faster-growing areas. Here's a look at some of those professions, the trends behind the growth and their salaries and wages.

Health Care Leads the Way

Given America's aging population, it's no surprise that the largest growth in jobs will be in health care. "The Healthcare Reform Act will create more jobs in health care as coverage expands to 30 million more Americans," says Pamela Tate, president and CEO the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, a national nonprofit organization.

Indeed, 17 of the next decade's 30 fastest-growing occupations identified by the BLS are health-care-related. During the recession, while most industries lost jobs, health care added over 600,000. In March alone, for instance, the BLS reported the largest employment gains came in health care, with 27,000 new jobs: 16,000 of those in ambulatory health care services and 9,000 in nursing and residential care facilities.

Growth is happening at all levels, from the highest paid physicians to hourly wage home health aides. The Labor Department projects 22% growth in the number of physicians, with the maximum increase in areas that tend to the needs of the elderly, such as cardiology and radiology because the risks for heart disease and cancer increase as people age.

Earnings of physicians and surgeons are among the highest of any occupation. According to the Medical Group Management Association's Physician Compensation and Production Survey, in 2008, physicians practicing primary care had total median annual compensation of $186,044, and physicians practicing in medical specialties earned total median annual compensation of $339,738.

However, nursing will create the largest number of new health care jobs. Already, registered nurses constitute the largest occupation in the health industry, at 2.6 million. Another 581,500 new nurses will be needed over the next 10 years.

The easiest way to enter nursing is via a two-year associate's degree. Once employed, people pursuing a bachelor's degree can take advantage of tuition reimbursement benefits from their hospitals or other workplaces. Once the degree is earned, it means higher wages. Currently, the median annual wage for nurses is $62,450.

No Diploma Needed

The next fastest-growing in terms of the most number of new jobs, at 461,000, is home health aides. Jobs in this area will grow by 50% because of a confluence of factors: More patients are returning home more quickly from hospitals because in-patient care is expensive. At the same time, caring for patients who are disabled, elderly or chronically ill can be physically and emotionally taxing, which leads to a high rate of job attrition.

Still, the skill requirements are low -- aides don't need a high school diploma; training from registered nurses is all that's needed to get a job. However, for patients to receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, aides need to be certified from a recognized agency such as The National Association for Home Care and Hospice. The median hourly wage of home care aides was $9.22 in May 2008.

Health care technology is another growth area. As doctors' offices and hospitals face a government-mandated deadline for electronic medical records and new medical coding standards, demand will increase for people with information technology know-how.

"Everything is becoming electronic and computerized -- the grease monkey jobs are becoming obsolete," says Norma Kent, senior vice president of communications with the American Association of Community Colleges. Health technologists, who organize and manage health information and assemble patient medical records will be in high demand. With a median annual wage of $30,610, entry-level jobs can be had with an associate degree in health info tech from a community college.

A high-skill, high-paying job, with a median wage of $77,400, is biomedical engineering, where engineers apply biology and principles of design to health systems and products such as artificial organs and prostheses. It's an emerging area and is projected to grow at a 72% rate in the next 10 years.

Besides health care, local "wellness" jobs that can't be shipped overseas will always be in demand. Americans' obsession with looking good won't stop, and that means continued high demand (37.9% increase) for skin care specialists. Jobs for fitness trainers and aerobics instructors, as well as athletic trainers, are all expected to grow at a rate of 30% or more.

Environmental Specialists Needed

Currently, though, as Petra Solar shows, the focus on energy and the environment is red hot and will continue to be. President Obama points to a study suggesting that "if we pursue our full potential for wind energy, and everything else goes right, wind could generate as much as 20% of America's electricity 20 years from now."

Clearly, that means more jobs for environmental specialists. The Labor Department says environmental engineers' jobs will grow 30%, and more survey researchers and other technicians will also be needed. The Department of Energy has set aside $5 billion for low-income families to weatherize their homes and make them more energy-efficient, so demand for insulation technicians is rising.

Likewise, electricians and plumbers who get additional training in energy efficiency will be able to secure environmental jobs. Petra Solar, for instance, has been hiring electric mechanical assemblers, production test technicians and more. "As we grow, we will not only need engineers and production people, but our needs will get broader, and we'll hire people in sales and administrative jobs," says Petra Solar CEO Kuran. If Petra Solar's experience can be replicated on a large-enough scale, a good job could soon be as common as sunshine.

Editor's Note: This is the fifth installment of our six-part special report: Restarting America's Job Machine.