‘One of the few strongholds left’

Health care has been one of Southwest Washington’s boom industries for the last few years. New clinics continue to open and the industry continues to have higher than average projected job growth.

For years, the health care industry across the nation has had a seemingly insatiable need for workers across the board – registered nurses in particular – but what effect does a stagnant economy have on a growth industry’s workforce?

So far, health care has remained one of the strongest industries, at least locally.

In his January Southwest Washington Labor Market News report, Regional Economist Scott Bailey wrote about Washington, “Health care and information both added jobs in December, but almost every other industry was caught up in the bloodbath.”

Clark County saw an increase of 200 health care jobs in December, and total health care employment was up 700 jobs compared to the year before.

In February, the message was much the same: education and health care (the reports for which are combined) and government were the only two sectors with higher job counts than a year prior.

Clark County added 200 health care jobs and Cowlitz County added 100, but regionally, that was offset by the Portland’s drop of 500 jobs.  

Compared to a year before, Clark County was up 1,200 jobs in health care and Cowlitz up 100. Bailey noted that the lion’s share of the new jobs is north of the Columbia River.

But as in almost all industries, he noted, that growth is starting to slow and health clinics are anticipating layoffs in the coming months.

“The sense I’m getting is that things are slowing down,” Bailey said. “People are losing their jobs, maybe they’ve lost their coverage or discretionary money.”

Another change is that people who are getting retrained to become RNs – who in the past, had no trouble finding jobs – are returning for job search help, he said.

“It’s taking longer for them to find jobs,” Bailey said.

Workforce implications

In the past few months, Southwest Washington Medical Center has seen an increase in the number of highly skilled nurses applying for positions the hospital has had previous challenges in filling, said RN and Nurse Recruiter Theresa Mazzaro.

The influx of experienced nurses may be due to several factors.

Some might have been travelling nurses – nurses working temporarily at hospitals for a premium price through agencies that subcontract with hospitals – who may be having trouble finding work now that hospitals are cutting costs and emphasizing employee retention.

Other nurses may have chosen to work part-time in the past, but could have had a partner lose a job or take a pay cut and are now forced to find full-time work and benefits.

This influx of experienced workers has helped hospitals fill skilled positions, but it also has created a challenge for new nurses without much experience, Mazzaro said.

That isn’t to say new nurses aren’t being hired in hospital settings, but many are having a hard time finding jobs.

As far as job openings go, Mazzaro said the hospital has fewer than it did a year ago, but attributes the drop to SWMC’s reduced turnover due to extensive employee selection and retention efforts. And the jobs that are open are typically for hard-to-recruit positions, such as management or director roles.

For example, there isn’t a single hospital that doesn’t need an experienced physical therapist, she added.

The situation is much the same on the clinic side, said Kurt Litvin, executive director of Southwest Medical Group, a physician-governed multi-specialty group that includes the medical group’s Battle Ground clinic that opened in February, Family Physicians Group, Pacific Surgical Specialists, Columbia Surgical Specialists, Neonatology Assoc. and SWMC.

“The job market, due to the economy, has actually produced a pool of a lot of available candidates right now,” Litvin said. “We have had pretty good success with most of the health care positions we post, whether it’s for medical assistants or others.”

However, from the physician side, the medical group employs a full-time recruiter.

“That person was deemed very much necessary because there continues to be a shortage of primary care and other specialties across the country,” Litvin said. “That’s one of the tactics we’ve taken on the medical group level in being more successful in finding, attracting and retaining.”

The group has a small amount of turnover – less now than in the past.

“With the economy, a lot more people are tending to stay put,” Litvin said. “Especially with employers that offer good benefits – especially health benefits.”

With a depressed economy, companies are looking to cut costs, and one of the areas affected is health benefits.

But Litvin said he hasn’t yet seen any direct affect on the number of patients visiting the clinics.

And as far as employment needs go, the region is flush with local training schools, and the need could look much different in more rural settings, he added.


Megan Patrick-Vaughn can be reached at mpatrick@vbjusa.com.