Health & Medicine

Think Sacramento is all about state workers? Health care sector is surging

Sacramento has long been known as a state worker town. These days, it’s just as accurate to call it a health worker town.

The health care sector in the four-county Sacramento region has grown steadily and significantly for more than a decade, according to the California Employment Development Department. While most other sectors shed jobs during the recession, hospitals, doctor’s offices and nursing homes held strong, adding 10,000 workers between 2008 and 2014.

As a result, roughly 83,000 health care workers live in the region, up nearly 60 percent since 2000. The Sacramento region now has about as many health workers as it does state civil-service employees.

It also has more registered nurses than waiters; more dental assistants than bartenders; more nursing assistants than baristas.

“It’s been a source of strength in the Sacramento economy,” said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. “It continues to be a growing area.”

The sector is growing largely because of demand: The region’s baby boomers are growing older and need more health care services, Michael and others said. Health advances also keep elderly seniors – those over age 85 – alive longer.

“If we continue to see the growth in retirees, we may see that increase in services continue,” said Tim Maurice, chief financial officer for the UC Davis Health System. UC Davis added 400 medical staff members during the last three years, he said.

The Affordable Care Act requiring Americans to obtain health insurance is another factor driving job growth, medical officials said. Californians with insurance are more likely to seek medical care.

“We have to meet that demand so we are expanding our footprint dramatically,” said Dr. Joseph Jasser, president and CEO of Dignity Health Medical Foundation, which operates scores of medical offices across the state. The foundation hired more than 100 new physicians last year and expects to hire another 150 this fiscal year.

Health workers tend to be well-paid and educated. When they spend their earnings, they support other sectors of the economy.

The average annual wage for health care providers and medical support staff in the Sacramento region is $80,000, state figures show. Typical pay ranges from about $25,000 a year for home health aides to more than $180,000 for family physicians.

Most occupations within the health care sector are growing, state figures show, especially those that work most directly with senior citizens.

For instance, the home health aide occupation will grow faster than all other fields in the Sacramento region this decade, the Employment Development Department predicts. Home health aides visit and care for the elderly, allowing thousands of senior citizens to stay in their homes instead of moving to assisted living.

The home health market is growing so fast that some traditional elder care chains such as Carmichael’s Eskaton are hiring or plan to hire home health aides.

“This is brand new for us,” said Betsy Donovan, Eskaton’s chief operating officer. “We could see possibly 100 new employees – private duty caregivers.”

The state’s booming senior population is also boosting demand at assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Those homes will need hundreds of licensed vocational nurses, certified nursing assistants, occupational therapists, physical therapists and other support staff, medical officials said.

Roughly 30 students graduate each year from Sacramento City College’s occupational therapy program and “they all get jobs,” said Ada Boone Hoerl, who runs it. “They often have jobs before they graduate.”

Likewise, for students in the certified nursing assistant program at Sierra College, “there is a multitude of options,” said Nancy Schwab, associate dean of nursing and allied health. “They are finding jobs. There is a need out there.”

Officials at area hospitals and doctor’s offices said demand also is strong for radiology technicians (average annual pay of $80,000 a year), lab technicians ($80,000) and pharmacists ($130,000).

Hospitals also need registered nurses ($110,000 a year), and often look for RNs who don’t need much on-the-job training, according to local college officials and hiring managers. RNs with a bachelor’s or master’s degree have an advantage over those graduating from a two-year program, they said.

Chelsea Hallford finished her schooling at Sacramento State a few months ago and was quickly hired at Sutter Memorial Hospital, where she had done some of her training. On Friday, she helped provide care at the hospital’s cardiac intensive-care unit.

Hallford worked in a midtown coffee shop for several years to put herself through college. “The bills are definitely easier to pay these days,” she said.

A wave of nurses and other health workers themselves reaching retirement age will create job openings, further driving growth, said Anette Smith-Dohring, workforce development manager for Sutter Health Sacramento Sierra Region.

“I think the hiring is going to pick up,” Smith-Dohring said. “About 12 percent of the population is over 65. We have about 30 percent of our staff now eligible for retirement. We will start to see some positions coming open.”

The regional workforce also likely will benefit from health care consolidation. Many large chains are putting their support personnel and technicians together in hubs. Sutter Health just opened such a hub in Roseville that employs about 1,300 people. About 500 of those employees were new hires, hospital officials said.

“The growth in Sacramento ... shows the beginnings of a cluster,” said Michael, the University of the Pacific economist.

Even so, Michael and some health professionals said, improved technology might eliminate the need for some workers. He expects growth in the health care job market to continue to exceed the pace of growth in the population, but fall below the 5 percent annual growth rate seen recently.

“It will continue at a fairly healthy clip,” he said. “We see it moderating at a 2.5 percent (annual) pace.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee