Health care jobs are in demand. Is it time for you to switch industries?

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Lisa Branham was 53 when she was laid off from her interior design job in late 2011. A month later, she woke up in the middle of the night and had an epiphany: she wanted to pursue a second career in nursing.

“I quickly realized that it would take me four to five years to become a nurse because I was deficient in the pre-reqs,” she says. “So I met with someone in the workforce education office at North Seattle College who talked to me about being a medical assistant.”

Branham found out she could complete the program in two years or less.

“I started school in January 2011 and realized that nursing probably wasn’t for me but being an MA was,” she says. After working for three years as a medical assistant at the University of Washington’s Diabetes Care Center, Branham is now employed at UW’s Regional Heart Center.

While pursuing a career in health care can seem daunting, it doesn’t have to be. There are multiple pathways to careers in health care and many begin with certificate programs — such as emergency medical technician and medical assistant. They are relatively short-term commitments, and can be affordable, especially if you qualify for financial assistance. The programs, including those at North Seattle College and the Allied Health Division of Seattle Central College and Seattle Vocational Institute, often feature flexible class schedules, and externships allow students to gain hands-on experience and make valuable connections.

“We often get 100 percent placement for our programs,” says David Gourd, executive dean of Allied Health Division at Seattle Central College. “All our students are trained in clinics, and often get jobs from those clinical placements if they passed their exams and have their licenses.”

Gourd says the school is always getting calls for surgical technicians because the market is desperate for them.

“This is the advantage of being in health care right now,” Gourd says. “There such a huge demand.”

A booming job market

Entry-level jobs in health care are in high demand and can be a stepping stone to career advancement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of health care occupations is projected to grow 18 percent from 2016 to 2026, adding about 2.4 million new jobs. This projected growth is mainly due to an aging population that will require increased health care services.

Salaries in the health care field vary wildly, depending on skill, education level, and demand. According to BLS, dental assistants can double a 2017 median salary of $37,000 if they become dental hygienists, while pharmacy technicians can make the leap from $31,000 to $124,000 if they continue their education and become pharmacists.

Joe Greitz is in the process of doing just that. He went through the pharmacy technician certificate program at North Seattle College and is licensed in the state of Washington. He is currently enrolled in the University of Washington School of Pharmacy.

“I had an interest in pharmacy because I enjoyed health care, but I’m not into blood and guts, so I didn’t want a career as a nurse or doctor,” Greitz says. “Someone suggested pharmacy and North’s nine-month certificate program let me get my feet wet and see if I enjoyed it. I wound up thinking it was the right thing to do in the end.”

Careers for every person and personality

There’s more good news: The health care field is so wide and deep that there is a job to suit every situation and temperament.

Originally from Brazil, Andreia Teixeira didn’t have a degree in the U.S. In the process of getting divorced and mother to a young son, she qualified as a displaced homemaker and was eligible for worker retraining.

“I looked at my options and liked medical assisting. I liked that I wouldn’t be sitting all day long and that I can be in the clinic with patients,” she says. She was certified in 2016 and now works as a medical assistant at Eastside ENT in Bellevue.

North Seattle College, Seattle Central College and Seattle Vocational Institute offer highly respected and in-demand programs (many have wait lists), including nursing assistant and medical assistant, as well as pharmacy technician, phlebotomy technician and emergency medical technician. Allied Health Programs — offered at Seattle Central and SVI — feature certificate and associate degree options, as well as bachelors of applied science so students can move, for example, from a dental assisting certificate to an AAS-T in Dental Hygiene to a BAS in Dental Hygiene. Central supply processing and surgical technician certificates are building blocks to a Surgical Tech AAS-T.

The dearth of people to fill health care jobs isn’t the only reason the placement rate for these certificate programs is so high. The programs focus on thoroughly preparing students for certification and licensing exams. North offers I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) programs for some courses, putting two instructors in the classroom — a content instructor and an adult basic education instructor to help struggling students with math or language skills.

The programs and instructors have deep industry connections. Branham set her sites on working at UW’s Diabetes Care Clinic, but they didn’t take externs. The coordinator for North’s MA program made some calls and got Branham an interview with the clinic’s director. She got the externship, and she got a job upon certification.

While Branham continues to pick away at nursing pre-reqs, she’s happy as a medical assistant. “A certificate is a good way to get into health care if finances or time are the issue,” she says. “It’s something you can do in just a couple of years and have a very rewarding career. I love what I do.”