September's strong jobs gain brings healthcare back to pre-pandemic employment, federal data show

Healthcare employment saw major gains in September and jobs numbers not seen since February 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly report released Friday morning.

The preliminary data show hospitals, ambulatory healthcare services and nursing and residential care facilities added roughly 60,100 jobs last month, accounting for more than a fifth of all jobs gained across the U.S. economy. 

Employment in the sector had picked up over the summer with 56,700 jobs added in June, 69,600 in July and 48,200 in August, according to BLS. The healthcare industry is up by about 489,800 jobs since September of last year.

The month's growth was largely split between hospitals and ambulatory care, with the former picking up 27,500 jobs and the latter adding 28,100.

“It’s a pleasant surprise, but I would caution against operators reading too much into it,” Matt Wolf, director and healthcare senior analyst at consulting firm RSM US, told Fierce Healthcare. “We've also seen unemployment decline, labor force participation rates decline as well, which further supports the narrative that we've seen that the hospital operators just simply aren't going to be able to hire their way out of this situation.”

Economy-wide unemployment dipped from 3.7% in September to 3.5%, according to BLS, while labor force participation inched down a tenth of a percent to 62.3%.

While healthcare has returned to its pre-pandemic employment numbers, Wolf noted that demand hasn't spent the past two and a half years waiting around.

Total national health expenditure as measured by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was $4.1 trillion in 2020 and is estimated to hit $4.5 trillion in 2022, he said.

“That's a 10% increase in health expenditures in two years,” Wolf said. “We still have a much higher demand, still have about 10,000 Americans becoming eligible for Medicare every day, and we're just now back to the pre-pandemic level of employment.”

“We’re going to have to find new ways to leverage technology, automation, analytics, different clinical workflows, different ways of approaching healthcare in general in order to meet the demand,” he continued. “We just won’t be able to hire enough doctors and enough nurses and enough administrators to solve healthcare problems in the way that we did prior to the pandemic. Demand is increasing much faster than the supply of labor.”

September’s strong jobs showing among hospitals and ambulatory care was not shared by nursing and residential care facilities, which according to BLS added just 4,500 positions since August.

The subsector had seen gains of roughly 11,000 jobs per month since April. Industry groups have warned throughout the pandemic of hundreds of thousands of job vacancies across these settings that limit hospital discharges and jeopardize other downstream care.

Much of the challenge for nursing and residential care facilities has been competition from other industries that have increased their wages over the past few years, Wolf said.

“We have a lot of other employers outside of healthcare—retailers, food service—that are paying $19 an hour and offering additional benefits,” he said. “A lot of the caregivers in senior care said ‘Well, I can go and make similar money working outside of this industry,’ and for many of them the work is much better—they’re restocking shelves, not changing colostomy bags.”

Healthcare facilities are often slower to increase wages than other industries because they are largely unable to raise prices and pass along the costs to consumers, he noted.

Hospitals and ambulatory settings’ clinical workforce have been less affected by the rising wage floor as these positions already demanded higher rates, Wolf said. Their administrative workers, however, are still ripe for the picking.

“On the administrative side we’ve seen that the competition isn’t so much in what they’re paying, but [if] there’s flexibility,” he said. “By and large, other industries are more flexible with their administrative functions, allowing them to work from home. We’ve, anecdotally, worked with a lot of clients and systems where, as they emerged from the pandemic, they told their IT people or their rev cycle people or whomever ‘Okay, we’re now going back into the office five days a week.’

“Those functions just said no and went and worked in other industries. That’s challenging for healthcare systems to navigate well. Many providers are doing it well, and many have things to learn yet about managing a hybrid workforce.”