Health Care’s Reliance on Women Calls for Flexible Work Arrangements

With a work force comprised of 80 percent women and with the potential for future employment shortages, the health care industry must make allowances for workers’ lifestyle needs, such as flexible work arrangements, researchers said.

“In the coming decade, the health care and social assistance sector will be one of the leading sources of employment. It is going to be one of the most vital sectors in the economy and it is going to be a place of job growth,” said Ithaca College sociologist Stephen Sweet.

“Because the industry is disproportionately reliant on women, allocating flexible work arrangements, to avoid work and family responsibility conflicts, will be absolutely critical to attracting and retaining the very best talent,” he added.

Sweet noted that during the economic downturn of recent years, health care and social assistance was the only major sector that experienced growth and is a sector where there are many jobs, with a lot of high-paying positions available. Because they are experiencing greater skill shortages than other sectors, employers in health care need to respond in a more aggressive fashion in advancing flexible work arrangements.

“When we project toward the future, we can anticipate continued growth and demand for workers in that sector,” said Sweet, lead author of the paper “Responsive Action Steps for the Health Care and Social Assistance Sector,” published by the Sloan Center on Aging at Boston College.

The total number of health care and social assistance establishments increased by 16 percent from 2000 to 2006 and will continue to increase to serve an aging population, creating even more new jobs. Furthermore, the industry faces the task of knowledge transfer before the baby boomers retire.

“If you have got a generation of workers that know how to produce or create certain types of products and they move out en masse, that can leave skill and knowledge deficits that employers should really pay attention to,” said Sweet, emphasizing the importance of planning for the transfer of knowledge from older workers to younger ones.

Typically, health care workers take pride in their jobs and are willing to work hard for their employers. But findings also show that one in two people working in this sector reported being too tired to take care of their household responsibilities several times a month when they came home.

Because the health care industry’s work force is comprised mostly of women, to meet the nation’s future demand for health care the report suggests alternate arrangements to minimize family tensions, including flexible schedules and flexible career paths that offer off-ramps and on-ramps.

Top employee skills in short supply for this sector include: management, sales/marketing, legal, operational and technical computer skills. Additionally, health care organizations reported a shortage of customer-relations skills as well as basic skill sets, such as literacy, writing and math.

Sweet serves as a visiting scholar at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. He is coprimary investigator in the series of reports on “Talent Pressure and the Aging Workforce,” published by the Sloan Center on Aging and Work.

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