By Mitchel Shhurman, Business Columnist from the FW Star-Telegram
Take away the healthcare industry, and the North Texas economy might look like California or another distressed state.
For the past decade, healthcare has been generating most of the job growth in this area, and often the only increases. The trend is similar nationwide, but the rate is faster here, because our population is rising, and Dallas-Fort Worth is drawing more patients and workers from beyond the region.
For all the hype about the exceptional Texas economy, Dallas-Fort Worth actually lost jobs from 2004 to 2009, as the recession deepened. But during the same period, the number of healthcare workers jumped 22 percent, according to a recent report from the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce.
My own analysis tracked those results. Tarrant County, which benefited from a natural gas boom, owed almost two-thirds of its private job growth to healthcare from 2001 to 2009. In Dallas County, total private jobs fell 11 percent in the period, while healthcare employment rose 28 percent. In fast-growing Collin County, healthcare jobs doubled in that time.
County job totals for specific sectors are available only through 2009, when the recession pushed most industries into serious decline.
Education and government were safe havens during the downturn, thanks to federal stimulus dollars. Today, schools and cities are struggling to hold on to workers, and healthcare has emerged as our most stable anchor. And that’s a positive development.
North Texas benefits from a deep, diversified economy. But boom-bust cycles are a painful way of life in manufacturing, real estate, construction, oil and gas, and financial services.
By comparison, healthcare is an island of stability, with most workers still enjoying traditional benefits. They can advance their careers, with employers often paying them to go back to college. And it’s difficult to outsource the work.
“For a community, hospitals are about the perfect employer,” says Terry Clower, a University of North Texas economist, who assessed healthcare’s economic impact for the Dallas chamber. “There’s such a broad range of employment opportunities, from surgeons to people who mop the floor, and many in between.
“And the big healthcare companies are fighting to get into our markets,” he said. “We don’t have to buy the business with tax incentives.”
Driven by aging baby boomers and medical advances, healthcare remains one of the few businesses with steady, predictable growth. That’s why big hospital systems have doubled down on investments in facilities, talent and marketing.
Along a short stretch of highway north of downtown Dallas, separate billboards tout Texas Health Resources, Baylor Health System, Children’s Medical Center and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
In the same corridor, Texas Woman’s University has completed a health science center for nursing and occupational therapy. In Fort Worth, Cook Children’s Medical Center will soon complete the first phase of a $250 million expansion to double the size of its facility.
These providers may be nonprofit organizations, but they’re competing aggressively. In the process, they’re burnishing the area’s image as a medical destination.
Less than two weeks ago, Baylor lured a prominent researcher from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to be its chief scientific officer. That’s an indication of the ambitions in North Texas, as providers try to compete with the best-known brands in medicine.
The buildup dovetails with the growth of local universities. They’re conducting research into drugs and delivery systems, as well as producing nurses and other job candidates. Community colleges and high schools keep the job pipeline flowing, too.
More than $5 billion is going to healthcare construction projects recently completed, under way and on the drawing board, the chamber says. That’s a badly needed boost for others who benefit from the infrastructure of healthcare.
“I bring up this topic all the time with students, and there’s an ‘aha’ moment,” said Cheri Butler, associate director of the Career Center at the University of Texas at Arlington. “They realize that this industry needs accountants, HR people, architects and lots of folks who aren’t treating patients.”
Healthcare jobs account for about 11 percent of private employment in North Texas. That’s been growing, and it’s on par with Houston’s Harris County, but the share is lower than the national average and many metro areas.
Dallas, Tarrant and Collin counties added almost 60,000 private healthcare workers from 2001 to 2009. Clower looked at more fields that contribute to healthcare and says the industry directly employs 331,000 people.
Hospitals, clinics, doctor and dentist offices, and the like accounted for the biggest chunk, 281,000. But more than 10,000 manufacture pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and lab instruments. And 7,000 work in health insurance, 3,000 administer public health programs, and 1,000 do research and development for biotechnology.
The Dallas chamber recently published a report on healthcare’s impact on the region, and it captures the size and scope of the industry.
In addition to jobs, the report cites 15 major construction projects, maps the concentration of healthcare facilities and describes the options in education.
Do people realize that UT Arlington’s college of nursing has more than tripled its enrollment in less than three years? It has 6,631 students, including those in online and clinical programs, and it’s now among the 10 largest nursing schools in the country.
The chamber report offers a sampling of healthcare jobs, including almost two dozen that pay $17,000 to $60,000. They include orderlies, medical records technicians, respiratory therapists and more.
“When we saw these healthcare numbers, we couldn’t believe our eyes,” said James Oberwetter, president of the Dallas chamber. “We want people to recognize that they can invest their time in this industry and have a great career.”
The potential upside is large. Nancy Cychol started as a nurse in Indiana and rose through ranks, coming to Fort Worth in 1984. Today, she’s president of Cook Children’s Medical Center.