Jennifer Jenkins and Tanya Belt aren't worried about finding jobs.
In a state where the unemployment rate is hovering around 11.5 percent, they have plenty of options.
Both women quickly landed jobs at Orlando hospitals after graduating from the University of Central Florida's Medical Laboratories Sciences program recently.
The program's current job placement rate: 100 percent.
"I just knew there would be so many opportunities for jobs," Belt, 23, said of choosing health care as a career.
In a chronically weak job market, the health-care industry is offering a lot of hope for new college grads. Not just for today, but for years to come.
Jenkins' and Belt's prospects are highlighted by federal job projections.
Thousands more health-care workers, from doctors to nurses to physical therapists, will be needed in the coming decade in Florida and across the country to treat the increasing number of older Americans — particularly the enormous baby boom generation.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, health care is expected to generate 3.2 million new jobs through 2018, more than any other industry and mainly because of the increasing number of elderly.
In Florida alone, U.S. Census data shows, the population of persons 65 and older is projected to increase by nearly 82 percent through 2020 to 5.1 million.
Add to that scenario the game-changing effects of federal health-care reform and the rapid evolution of medical technology in diagnosing and treating disease and it's easy to see why job-growth projections in health care are so robust.
"I'm very optimistic about the immediate future — it's an almost can't-miss opportunity," Aaron Liberman, a longtime hospital administrator and chairman of the Department of Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida, says about jobs in health care.
Belt, who works as a technologist in the microbiology laboratory at Florida Hospital Orlando, had multiple job offers before graduating in spring.
She likes the flexibility her education offers. While her current job involves examining human body fluid and tissue samples for the cause of disease, her license allows her to practice a variety of lab work.
"Coming out of high school, I knew I liked biology," Belt said. "After looking into laboratory sciences, I discovered you have many, many options in terms of jobs. It's very detailed work. It's like working a puzzle. I like that."
UCF's medical laboratories sciences program is offered through the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, part of the College of Medicine.
Students learn over a four-year bachelor's degree program how to conduct and read lab tests on blood, urine and other fluid and tissue samples. Graduates who pass a licensing exam can work in hospitals or independent labs.
Bottom line: The opportunities in health care go far beyond just doctors and nurses, Dorilyn Hitchcock, director of UCF's Laboratories Sciences Program, says.
Graduates of her program "are a key part of health care. They are the first line of diagnosis to help patients."
While the sheer number of health-care workers is projected to increase, the range of occupations in the industry is expected to grow as technology advances and new specialties are created. Less certain is how federal health-care reform and renewed emphasis on efficiency will affect demand for certain specialties.
Besides the better-known occupations of dentist, optometrist and pharmacist are jobs such as medical assistant, cardiovascular technologist, audiologist, occupational therapist, radiation therapist, speech-language pathologist and medical records and health information technician.
While many health-care occupations require a bachelor's degree as a minimum, many others such as home health-care worker, do not.
Some nursing and other health-care jobs are open to those with an associate's degree, but advancement requires master's and doctoral degrees.
Physicians, besides earning a medical doctor degree, are required to perform years of post-graduate work in clinical settings such as hospitals to achieve full certification.
UCF recently added a master's degree program in health informatics, which relates to technology in research and record-keeping, a rapidly developing field.
The first class had 27 students. The next added 50 more, UCF's Liberman said.
"Most of the tech fields provide fertile ground for individuals looking for stable career choices," Liberman said. "Few people with a master's have trouble finding jobs."
While some colleges and universities can expand degree programs in health-care fields to meet growing demand, others are limited in their ability to do so by space and faculty shortages or lack of clinical training opportunities.
'Don't be complacent'
Although Belt was aware that her job prospects would be bright, she didn't go through the motions and wait for opportunities to fall in her lap.
She went after a job as a lab assistant at a hospital while still a student so she could learn what the work environment was really like.
Now she was a known quantity in the real work world. She knew on-the-job training would give her a leg up on the competition for entry-level jobs — a lesson well-known to savvy job-seekers no matter the industry.
The result: multiple job offers in hand two weeks before graduation.
So instead of chasing job leads after picking up her diploma, "I took two weeks off before starting my new job."