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Health care expected to remain a source of jobs in 2015

After working as a home health care aide for a half-dozen years, Falanda Stevenson decided she would like to get the training to allow her to work in a hospital or nursing home.

Studying to become a certified nursing assistant can be expensive, and few agencies offer the training for free. But last year, the Buffalo resident completed a grant-funded, three-month program at the New Hope Education Center.

And last month, Stevenson started her new job as a CNA at Ridge View Manor Nursing Home in South Buffalo, where she earns $10.72 per hour tending to the residents’ basic needs.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air. You end up making a change in your life, something for the better, something that can better yourself and your children and your home. I love it,” she said.

As Stevenson learned, the region’s hospitals, nursing homes, health insurance companies, medical practices and biotech companies last year filled thousands of positions in a hiring boomlet that is expected to continue well into 2015.

The health care industry is a key piece of the regional economy, and government and private institutions are amplifying the existing infrastructure with hundreds of millions of dollars meant to boost health care delivery and biomedical research.

The available jobs range from positions accessible to high school graduates to positions that require graduate or post-graduate education.

Experts say hiring in the hottest fields – such as medical coding, health analytics and home health care – is driven by industry trends and advances in technology. And nonprofit agencies and colleges are adjusting their programs to meet the need.

With 74,400 workers, as of November, the health care sector accounts for 13 percent of the overall workforce in the Buffalo Niagara metro area, according to the state Labor Department. And hiring in health care has outpaced overall hiring going back a decade.

Between November 2004 and November 2014, employment in the health care sector rose by 6.9 percent here, according to the Labor Department, better than the anemic 0.6 percent increase in all employment over the last 10 years.

“I would say health care is still a great area of opportunity,” said Arlene Kaukus, director of career services at the University at Buffalo.

First, the nation’s – and particularly the region’s – aging population means people will be consuming more health care services in the years to come, Kaukus said.

Second, the focus on health care and biotech as an economic development engine, with millions of dollars invested in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus by private- and public-sector partners, is making jobs available beyond the traditional positions in hospitals and nursing homes.

Through UB Career Services’ job-search program, 937 employers posted 2,200 health care jobs over the course of 2014, Kaukus said, including a number of life-sciences firms.

Some health care jobs are accessible only to people with medical degrees or doctoral degrees, but many positions require just a high school degree or some certification.

A number of nonprofit programs are helping train people.

The Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Investment Board, for example, administers a federally funded Health Profession Opportunity Grant that has paid $1.3 million per year for five years, or $6.5 million in all. The board is applying this year for another five years of funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In the first four years of the program, through Oct. 1, 2014, 1,040 people were trained, said Mark Cosgrove, the project director for the grant program. The board had a job placement rate of 76 percent for those who completed their training.

The most popular training included certified nursing assistant, a licensed practical nurse, a pharmacy technician or a medical secretary. “There are a lot of opportunities in nursing homes,” Cosgrove said.

That’s what Stevenson, who recently went through the grant-funded training, found.

She said she appreciated that the grant covered the cost of child care and transportation during her training and for the first two months of her new job. Stevenson has an 11-year-old daughter and relies on public transportation to get around.

The training taught her how to feed clients, take them to the bathroom and the shower and take their temperature and pulse, among other tasks. She started working the 3 to 11 p.m. shift at Ridge View Manor in early December. “I really like it. It’s been a very good experience,” Stevenson said.

Still hiring

At Kaleida Health, home health care is a growing service. The system’s Visiting Nursing Association of Western New York had 1,043 employees at the end of 2014, after hiring 140 workers last year, and plans to hire 145 more this year.

The association’s nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists and others give ongoing treatment for chronic conditions, or therapy after surgery, said Mary Lou Klee, Kaleida Health’s director of corporate human resources. “It’s the complete care of the patient in the home,” Klee said.

The association has found it hardest to hire occupational and physical therapists. “We’re probably not graduating enough to fill the need,” she said.

The Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology last year launched two grant-funded training programs, one for medical coding and one for pharmacy technicians. “What we were looking for, actually, was where were the jobs going to be by the time we went through this training?” said Amber Dixon, the center’s executive director.

The center worked with area hospitals to design the curriculum and to make sure they were willing to take on the students as interns, she said. The classes also emphasize “soft skills” such as being on time every day.

The medical coding program, which graduated its first class of 17 students in December, teaches everything they need to know to understand the international system of 80,000 disease codes that tracks every medical problem reported by every patient.

The pharmacy tech program, which will graduate its first class in March, is focused on filling jobs at hospitals, nursing homes and institutions where pay typically is higher than at a retail pharmacy.

Health insurance companies, for their part, are looking to hire statisticians, computer scientists, mathematicians and epidemiologists for their growing analytics departments.

The field collects, sorts and seeks patterns in massive amounts of data from doctors’ offices, hospitals and the insurers themselves to deliver better care at a lower cost, said Amin Serehali, vice president of clinical and business informatics for Independent Health.

The Amherst-based insurer had about 10 people in its analytics department five years ago and has 70 now, Serehali said, and wants to hire more.