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Healthcare Drives Private-Sector Employment in Garden State

Major initiative looks to move New Jerseyans from public assistance to healthcare careers.

Healthcare accounted for nearly half of the private-sector jobs created during the past 12 months, and this job creation engine has been rolling along for years. Between 1990 and 2009, three of every five jobs created in New Jersey were in healthcare "and that's a pretty astounding number," said Aaron Fichtner, assistant commissioner for labor planning and analysis in the state Department of Labor. "It's safe to say healthcare has been our strongest industry in New Jersey overall," he noted.

Numbers like these have inspired a major initiative to train New Jerseyans who receive public assistance for careers in healthcare. The goal of the Northern New Jersey Health Professionals Consortium is to help 5,000 people escape poverty by entering the healthcare industry over the next five years. Classes began at community colleges during the summer, and so far 368 have enrolled and 22 have finished school and landed jobs, according to Justin E. Doheny, project director.

He had hoped to have as many as 700 enrolled by this point, "so we're a little bit behind the curve, and we have a ways to go, but we are filling up the pipelines" with students.

The nearly 25 training programs offered at 10 community colleges include medical assistant, dental assistant, nursing assistant, home health aide, electronic health record specialist, emergency medical technician, pharmacy technician, medical transcription, and paramedic.

A $24 million, five-year grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services is funding the training consortium, which is led by Bergen Community College and includes nine other community colleges as well as local Workforce Investment Boards that work with the labor department to expand employment. Also taking part are several healthcare employers, including the hospital system Meridian Health, the Visiting Nurse Association of Central New Jersey, and CVS Pharmacies.

The goal is to move individuals off public assistance "and into occupations that can provide them with a self-sufficient income," Doheny said. Students have various challenges to overcome; those who haven't completed high school may first need to take remedial courses at the community college. "You need math skills to be a pharmacy tech" and the paramedic textbook is on the 12th grade level, he said. One college is teaching a paramedic course in Wayne, and several students needed transportation to get there. "The grant is funding transportation to get them from downtown Paterson to Wayne," and is also buying the stethoscopes that each needs for the course. He said the grant has money for child care, but so far there has not been much demand for that assistance.

Fichtner said "The aging of the population is driving the demand for healthcare. We are really taking a broad look at where healthcare is going from a skills perspective, and how to train people effectively." Years of labor market experience suggest that "healthcare seems like a good bet for a career."

A report by the DOL in April said a key factor in the growth of the healthcare industry over the past 20 years is its consistency; the sector grew at least 1.2 percent, year over year, even during recessions.

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