You don't need a four-year college degree to qualify for some of the fastest-growing jobs in healthcare. Many occupations on healthcare employers' most-wanted lists require two or fewer years of education and can serve as springboards to higher positions.
"There are a number of allied health professions that have career ladders attached to them," says Debra Stock, the American Hospital Association's vice president of member relations. Radiologic technicians, clinical lab technicians, physical therapy assistants, pharmacy technicians and nursing assistants are all in high demand and can lead to elevated positions if a worker attains additional education or certification.
For example, radiologic technicians, who help prepare patients for X-rays and other diagnostic tests, can advance to become radiologic technologists and then further specialize in mammography or magnetic resonance imaging, Stock says. Clinical lab technicians, who perform laboratory procedures, can follow a similar progression, moving first to a technologist role and then specializing in an area like pathology. Each step up the healthcare ladder would generate more responsibility and fatter paychecks, Stock says.
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Likewise, workers interested in physical therapy (PT) or pharmacy can start in secondary roles before deciding whether to invest in PT or pharmacy school.
Registered pharmacist Cynthia Reilly says her experience as a pharmacy technician served as a stepping-stone to her current career. Reilly started college as a journalism major but had to take time off from school for financial reasons. During that period, she worked full-time as a hospital pharmacy technician. "I had not been interested in being a pharmacist before, but when I spent so much time in the pharmacy, I realized the range of opportunities available," says Reilly, who also credits mentors with encouraging her to pursue a pharmacy career.
Nursing also offers rich career paths. Many certified nursing assistants move on to become licensed practical nurses or registered nurses. And RNs can progress much further with advanced degrees, becoming nurse practitioners or clinical nurse specialists.
Licensed practical nurse Gregory Howard started his healthcare career as a nursing assistant. When he heard rumors that all nursing-assistant positions at his hospital were being phased out, he took action. "I liked the medical profession, so I decided to try to get into a practical nursing school," Howard says.
Nursing school was easier for him because of his patient-care experience and knowledge of medical terminology. "Students who hadn't worked in a hospital before struggled because the language was completely foreign to them," Howard says. He claims that his experience as a nursing assistant gives him a greater empathy for and understanding of the capabilities of the aides with whom he works today. Because he likes "the hands-on aspects of being an LPN," Howard says he has no intentions of becoming an RN.
Hospitals boast a diverse range of programs -- from on-site courses to tuition assistance -- to encourage workers to advance up the healthcare ladder, Stock says. However, many allied health workers who find a position they like don't want to spend the time, money and effort it would take to climb higher. The healthcare system wouldn't function without the contributions of technicians and assistants. "They're very valuable roles that offer a lot of patient contact," Stock says. "That's very satisfying."