4 fast-growing health care careers, without a 4-year degree

December 12, 2013, 9:22 PM UTC

Dear Annie: I’ve spent my whole 16-year career so far in the commercial real estate brokerage business, and I’d like to make a complete change, ideally by moving into a job that really helps people. I keep hearing that health care is booming (and, unlike my current field, is relatively recession-proof). But it’s such a huge industry, I don’t know which specific parts of it are likely to be doing the most hiring in the next few years. I already have a bachelor’s degree, and can’t afford the time or the expense to pursue another one, but I’d be willing and able to go back to school for a year or two if it meant being able to start a new career. Do you have any suggestions? — Tina in Tampa

Dear Tina: I think you’re on the right track. Although the pace of health care hiring, especially by hospitals, has slowed somewhat since this time last year, it’s still one of the hottest fields around. Almost 15 million people in the U.S. are employed in some facet of health care, and the nonprofit Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies projects 31% job growth — or 4.6 million more jobs — over the next 10 years.

That’s partly because of the Affordable Care Act, notes Tony Lee, publisher of job site CareerCast. “More insured people means an increase in all types of health-related services, ranging from direct patient care to maintaining medical records,” he says. Another factor is the aging of the population. As 70 million Boomers reach their golden years, demand for all kinds of health care is expected to keep on climbing.

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CareerCast recently made a list, based on Bureau of labor Statistics projections and its own job listings, of the 12 hottest health care jobs. Not surprisingly, most of them require advanced degrees. For instance, demand for pharmacists (median annual pay: $116,670) is projected to grow by 25% in the next seven years. The job requires a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D) degree, as well as both federal and state licenses.

Likewise, as Americans get older, it seems their feet give them more trouble, so the job market for podiatrists (average pay: $116,440) is expected to grow by about 20% between now and 2020. But becoming a podiatrist takes a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine degree and a medical residency.

Not to worry. Here are four health care jobs that are available to people with one or two years of specialized training, usually an associate’s degree from a community college or trade school:

Dental hygienist. Projected job growth by 2020: 38%. Median pay: $70,210. Demand in this field is rising in part because people are taking better care of their teeth, due to recently discovered links between dental health and overall health — especially heart disease and, in pregnant women, the risk of birth defects.

Physical therapist. Projected job growth: 39%. Median pay: $79,860. Physical therapists help patients regain their strength and range of motion after illnesses or accidents. A related field, occupational therapy, focuses on enabling people to get back to work after an injury.

Respiratory therapist. Projected job growth: 28%. Median pay: $55,870. Most new hires in this field are working with the growing elderly population, but demand is also increasing at the other end of the age range: More parents are seeking out professional help for their children’s breathing problems, including asthma and allergies.

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Medical records technician. Projected job growth: 21%. Median pay: $34,610. A flood of new patients from the Affordable Care Act, plus federal requirements that medical records be moved from paper to computers, is driving the need for more — and more skilled — record-keeping staff in hospitals and doctors’ offices. To qualify, you typically need only a non-degree certificate.

Once you’ve chosen a health care field, research your state’s licensing requirements and other rules, which can vary all over the map. Good luck!

Talkback: If you work in health care, would you recommend it to people who want to change careers? Why or why not?