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Students still crowding into area colleges health programs
Nurse practitioner Juli Dyer, right, works with family nurse practitioner student Adrienne Haynes.

Health care was one of the few career fields that not only remained steady during the recent recession but experienced growth.

And as jobs continue to be added to the industry, colleges and universities are racing to keep up with the demand from prospective students.

“We get in the vicinity of 100 to 150 applications for 30 prime spots,” said Kim Hudson-Gallogly, department head for nursing at the University of North Georgia. Those 30 spots are for the university’s master’s degree program.

The offerings at area colleges are rapidly changing. Piedmont College just announced the addition of its first master’s program for nurses, preparing nurses as clinical educators and providing the background needed for entry-level teaching in higher education. It’s in addition to the bachelor’s degree program.

Along with nursing, the University of North Georgia offers programs in clinical mental health counseling and physical therapy. Brenau University gave out three of its first doctoral degrees in nursing practice at the May graduation, and also offers programs in nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy and other health fields.

Lanier Technical College also has many health-related programs of study.

Along with those four colleges, the externship program with Northeast Georgia Medical Center also has students from Truett-McConnell College, Georgia Regents University, Athens Technical College, North Georgia Technical College and Georgia Perimeter College.

“We’ve created a yearlong extern program,” said Ashley Smith, education affiliation instructor with Northeast Georgia Health System. “Usually, extern programs are 10 weeks during the summer, but we wanted more of an experience for our externs.”

There are 45 externs, chosen from around 150 applicants.

Multispecialty practice The Longstreet Clinic also offers medical experience. Training programs are usually at capacity every semester, with numbers varying between practices.

“It is not unusual for students to contact us months in advance,” said Julie King, director of community development and human resources with the clinic. “We try to accommodate as many students as we possibly can, be it for a rotation or a semester.”

Job availability, higher wages and job security are attracting many of these students to a job in health.

“I probably see more nontraditional people getting into the health care field moreso than the younger, traditional student,” Smith said. “There are so many different avenues to go down, just as a nurse. There’s so many types of bedside nursing avenues you can go, like critical care or mother/baby, oncology, hospice.”

The hope is to not only train the students, but also be able to hire them into the health system after they graduate, Smith said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median pay for a registered nurse is $65,470, with an expected job growth rate of 19 percent from 2012 through 2022.

Licensed practical nurses’ median salary is $41,540. There’s an expected growth rate of 25 percent from 2012 through 2022.

Physician assistants make a median salary of $90,930, with an expected growth rate of 38 percent through 2022.

And nurse practitioners, lumped in with midwives and anesthetists by the bureau, make a median salary of $96,460, with an expected growth rate of 31 percent through 2022.

The job demand and the need for extra education aren’t expected to slow anytime soon, especially with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

“The practice components for the practice-affiliated degrees, like the nurse practitioner and whatever it is, whether it’s family, adult, pediatric, women’s health, all of those are in demand,” Hudson-Gallogly said. “With the Affordable Care Act, that has increased the need for primary care providers and the nurse practitioner is a very real possibility of giving excellent care to the patient.”

Numbers from the Labor Department show 54,900 health care workers were added in May. Along with job growth, those working in health care are more likely to get significant pay raises on a more regular basis.

But the health care industry is growing at a rate of around only 1.4 percent this year, compared to last year’s 1.6 percent. Hudson-Gallogly said it remains to be seen what will be the true impact of the Affordable Care Act, but the bottom line is the industry is still growing. The jobs are there for those who go through the training.

“The Affordable Care Act has certainly increased the need, because they not only are funding more and more programs ... but also opening additional health care centers across the United States,” said Hudson-Gallogly.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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