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Health care accounts for 30 percent of jobs created in west central Minnesota over past decade

Fern Hauge, left, a resident of Compassionate Cottage in Willmar, browses through recipes Monday with personal assistant Debbie Friedlein. Services that meet the needs of older adults are fueling current and future job growth in health care and social assistance, making this one of the region’s fastest growing job categories. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR — When Bev Werder started her own business, Compassionate Care, in 2002, she had just one employee — herself.

Now she has 60 full- and part-time staff who provide daily help and companionship to older adults living in their own homes. Five years ago she expanded by opening Compassionate Cottage, a board and care facility with services and all the comforts of home for her aging clients.

“It’s what I love to do, and it just evolved from there,” says Werder.

“I never envisioned that it would grow like this.”

Businesses like Werder’s have been quietly fueling one of the region’s most rapidly growing employment categories: health care and social assistance.

About 30 percent of net new jobs in Kandiyohi County in the past decade have been in health care. Health care and social assistance now accounts for one in every four jobs in the county, making it the single largest category of employment.

“A huge area of opportunity” is how Cameron Macht, regional labor market analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, describes it.

“We believe that health care is going to continue to be one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the county and in the region,” he said. “We’re expecting to see a lot of growth.”

Much of it is driven by demographics. The over-65 population is growing faster than any other age group in the region. The share of Kandiyohi County adults older than 65 is projected to increase from 16 percent to fully 25 percent by 2030.

It all adds up to a big future for health care jobs.

“When we talk at the schools, health care is always an industry that we focus on because that’s expected to see so much growth,” Macht said.

According to the most recent analysis by the state employment department, four of the five jobs currently most in demand in the region are in health care. Home health aides head the list, followed by personal care aides.

It’s no surprise to those who work with older adults.

Senior care is Werder’s passion but she also sees a strong practical need for the services she offers — anything from accompanying an older client at a doctor’s appointment to shopping, light housekeeping and family respite care.

What families increasingly want are services that are flexible, that give them options and allow older adults to live independently in their own homes for as long as possible, Werder said. “It’s only going to grow. The demographics are really changing. With this aging population and longer life expectancies, I expect home care services will increase dramatically.”

This past month she had to advertise for help for the first time ever. “That’s just a sign of the demand for older adult services,” she said.

Workers ranging from nurses and physicians to medical and health services managers, medical secretaries, radiologic and laboratory technologists, dental hygienists and nursing aides also are in high demand, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development analysis.

Some shrinkage in hospital and nursing home employment during the past few years indicates that health care has not been wholly immune to the effects of economic recession.

But it comes “as close as possible” to being recession-proof, Macht said. “The growth is pretty consistent, regardless of the recession. Hospital employment is not growing but it’s relatively stable even when they have tight budgets.”

Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, views health care as one of the keys to local economic success.

The sheer number of health care-related jobs makes this “a significant part of our local economy,” he said.

Many health care jobs, especially in the professional categories, pay well, he noted.

With a concentration of health services, Kandiyohi County also stands out from neighboring counties where health care typically accounts for slightly less than one out of five jobs.

“We’ve created ourselves a niche where people come, in some cases as far as 100 miles, to Willmar seeking treatment,” Renquist said. “Having the quality health care that we have makes us a destination for people.”

He sees additional potential in the medical engineering and bioscience industries on which the MinnWest Technology Campus has pinned its hopes. Current campus tenants include an animal vaccine company and a manufacturer of a patented device for removing tendon scar tissue.

“I think the health care industry, like a lot of industries, is evolving,” Renquist said. “I think it’s incumbent upon us to create an environment in which the health care industry can succeed.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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