Healthcare now employs more Americans than any other business sector. Throughout the 20th century, the top employers in the U.S. were consistently in retail and manufacturing sectors. While it’s unclear what this increase in the number of healthcare workers will mean for individual patients, the trend doesn’t seem to be in danger of reversing any time soon.
How It Happened
Two key factors have played a role in healthcare becoming the top employer in the U.S. One is that Americans are getting older. Between 2005 and 2025, the number of American workers over the age of 55 will have doubled to represent one quarter of the U.S. workforce. The other factor is that Americans are spending more than ever before on medical care, as reported in The Atlantic. Economists have predicted this trend for a long time, but healthcare finally surpassed other sectors of employment in the last quarter of 2017.
A look at a few snapshots of the recent past show how we got to this point. In 2000, manufacturing employed about seven million more Americans than the healthcare sector did. When the Great Recession started in 2008, that number had dwindled to 2.4 million more manufacturing workers than healthcare workers. It took nine more years for healthcare to bypass manufacturing for the most workers.
The decline of manufacturing in the U.S. can be attributed to several factors, most notably increases in automation and globalization. In the manufacturing sector, jobs can be sent overseas and workers can be replaced by robots. These things happen to a much lesser degree in healthcare, which still requires hands-on, in-person care from local providers. Medical technology has not yet advanced to the point where robots can replace nurses, doctors and technologists.
Outpacing Traditional Sectors
According to employment projections for the years 2016 to 2026 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), overall employment should increase by 11.5 million people over that decade. The BLS anticipates that this 0.7 percent annual growth can be largely attributed to healthcare. Specifically, the fastest-growing employment sector is projected to be healthcare support occupations, with 23.2 percent projected growth, and healthcare practitioners and related technical workers, with 15.2 percent growth.
The demographics of manufacturing workers and healthcare workers differ. When U.S. manufacturing hit its peak in the 1970s, the industry was overwhelmingly white and male. Healthcare workers today are predominantly female, especially in certain skilled occupations like nursing. While the number of male nurses is increasing, this career is still stigmatized for male workers.
Education will be more important to healthcare workers than it was to manufacturing workers. Of the 30 occupations that the BLS projects to grow the fastest between 2016 and 2026, seventeen are in or directly related to the healthcare industry (e.g., postsecondary educators of nurses). Nearly two-thirds of the 30 fastest-growing occupations require at least some postsecondary education.
By contrast, team assemblers, who made up 862,300 of manufacturing’s workers in January 2018, generally needed a high school diploma or equivalent to be hired. Increased demand for healthcare workers will create an increased demand for high school students to prepare for technology and science careers, especially as even fewer manufacturing jobs become available to them when they graduate.
What This Means for Patients
Governmental unpredictability affects the healthcare system, health insurance and how Americans pay for our care, making it difficult to predict the effects that the increase in the number of healthcare employees will have for patients. One trend that the Health Research Institute (HRI) predicts for 2018 is that healthcare companies are starting to prioritize patient experience over volume of patients. Perhaps with an increase in the number of workers across multiple healthcare fields, even more opportunities will emerge for companies to deliver outstanding care experience to their patients.
HRI also predicts that healthcare companies will seek to increase efficiency in 2018. This also seems to bode well for patients, since increased efficiency means improved worker performance as well as lower healthcare costs.
Whatever the future holds for an aging U.S. population in need of more, and more expensive, healthcare, healthcare companies and their workforce must prepare to rise to the challenge. They’ll have to cooperate on ensuring that workers receive the training, resources and support they need to help keep patients healthy. Some of this will involve advanced planning for natural disasters, which in recent years have repeatedly been shown to have a devastating effect on the healthcare supply chain. The best possible outcomes can only come from alignment between companies, healthcare workers and patients.