There's Plenty of Growth in Low-Wage Health Care Jobs

Health Care Professionals

A surge in health care jobs means more opportunities for individuals who work in hospitals, clinics, and physician's offices. So, what's the problem? As a recent report from Brookings Institute pointed out, the vast majority of new health care jobs are low-paying and have gone to nursing aides, dental assistants, and home health aides. Further troubling researchers is the fact that so many of the workers studied live at or slightly above the poverty line.

"Many of these workers are in the working poor category, meaning that they earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level," Brookings fellow Martha Ross told St. Louis Public Radio.

The Brookings study looked at 10 health care occupations and 100 metropolitan areas in order to compile data on wages, employment, and diversity. Using the data collected, researchers hoped to explain how more health care jobs doesn't necessarily translate into a better deal for workers. For example, the number of personal care aides without a bachelor's degree doubled in the St. Louis area over the past decade. Yet, during that same timeframe, local wages for personal care aides dropped 25 percent. That's much worse than just not getting a raise.

Karen Roth, research director at the St. Louis Area Health Coalition, expressed her concern regarding these trends. According to Roth, high health care turnover caused by a wide range of issues is "something that has plagued the medical profession for a long time" and a problem that can drive down health care results.

With health care workers with less than a bachelor's degree making up 61 percent of the industry's workers, it's becoming increasingly important to monitor the situation and look for ways to help. As USA Today noted, the U.S. Labor force has splintered into one with mostly low-wage and high-wage jobs but very few in between. The hope is that, by growing awareness of the issue, the health care sector could help bridge the gap between the rich and the poor by providing some middle-class jobs to replace the many we have lost over the last decade.

"It can provide people with lower levels of education a career ladder and a path toward upward mobility," Ross told USA Today.

In order to provide solutions to the problem, the Brookings study recommended a wide range of initiatives aimed at better utilizing all health care workers, regardless of educational background. Among the suggestions include options for additional job training, educational opportunities, and restructuring.

Further top-down efforts are also suggested by the study, such as developing and strengthening "regional healthcare partnerships of employers and educators to meet regional healthcare workforce needs, with a focus on helping pre-baccalaureate work­ers increase their skills and advance on the job."

The hope is that, by pulling hospitals and regional health care providers into the discussion, some larger, systemic changes might find their way on the table. According to the authors of the study, something has to give.

"These workers are a huge share of the workforce. They are the hands and ears and eyes of much of health care," Ross told The Tennessean. "They are assets, and they're not being used to their full potential."

Compiled by Holly Johnson


"Health care jobs lift less-educated workers," USA Today, July 24, 2014, Paul Davidson,

"Low-wage health care jobs grow but without mobility," The Tennessean, July 23, 2014, Shelley DuBois,

"Part of the Solution: Pre-Baccalaureate Healthcare Workers in a Time of Health System Change," Brookings, July 2014, Martha Ross, Nicole Pichrl Svajlenka, and Jane Williams,

"The Number Of Health Care Workers With Low Education Levels Is Rising ? But Their Wages Aren't," St. Louis Public Radio, July 23, 2014, Veronique LaCapra,

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