Retraining for a new career in the health field

Health care end-of-the-year checkup.

Kai Ryssdal: Back in the early 1990s, a freelance producer named Deb Monroe started filing stories for us -- not long after she'd left a job in television news to stay home with her two young kids. Those kids are practically grown now, so a couple of years ago, Deb decided to go back to work. Like the rest of the news business, local television has changed quite a bit in the past 20 years. So much so that Deb decided to switch careers to one of the brighter spots in the economy -- health care. But now that she's finished her two years of studying to be a medical assistant, she's discovered the road to a job in health care is jam-packed.


Deb Monroe: When I first started at Canada College in Silicon Valley, I thought I had an edge. After all, I'd been a news producer, a legal secretary, even a new media start-up executive. Then I started talking with my classmates. In crowded classes like medical insurance, billing and transcription, I find myself surrounded by former engineers, airline employees, even former recruiters. Turns out, lots of other people had the same idea of switching to health care.

Ann Nolan: I started researching fields that were hiring, that were growing and health care was one of the biggest.

Ann Nolan is a small business owner who wants to work an extra decade before retiring. I met her my first day in the medical assisting program, and when I see her again, I learn she's got a clever new plan to increase her marketability.

Nolan: We have an added strategy which is to take phlebotomy as well, the drawing of blood, so that our options for employment are that much greater.

That's enough to make my blood pressure shoot up, which is funny because when I run into Ann, she's practicing taking blood pressure readings on fellow students.

Nolan: I got about 118 over 82.

Instead of going the clinical route, like Ann, I've chosen the administrative side of health care. Specifically medical coding, a system used to bill insurance companies.

I run my plan by instructor Kate Charlton, who has been a nurse of 30 years. Charlton says going into coding is a good idea, for one simple reason.

Kate Charlton: Because that's where the money is.

If you don't use the right codes, the doctor or hospital won't get paid enough to cover services.

Charlton: Every doctor, every clinic, every hospital knows that a good coder means increased revenue for their office.

Good news, now that I'm done and ready to look for work. But I still need to find an entry-level job -- in a new field -- at my age.

Victoria Clinton: Actually, the medical profession is one of the few fields that actually prefers the older person.

Says instructor Victoria Clinton, although she is quick to remind me, that is, in this tight job market, if you're the creme de la creme of older workers.

Clinton: Any time you have more people entering a field, then they just simply up their standards of what they want

So do I have what it takes? Well, I applied for a job as an admin assistant in a small medical office and got a nice rejection letter. More than 75 people had responded to the doctor's ad in the first 48 hours. Oh well, not surprising considering the economy. But I can't help but feel... deflated. After spending 2 years retraining for a shiny new career in health care, the competition is a lot tougher than I'd imagined.

In Redwood City, this is Deb Monroe for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Deb's next challenge? Advice from her daughter on snapping that perfect picture for her online resume. That story's coming up this weekend on our personal finance show, Marketplace Money.

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