Job outlook for 2005: Nursing, biotech and construction are hot

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Those on the hunt for jobs are getting good news for 2005: Florida's employment picture continues to shine bright. Economic forecasts predict the state will add 209,000 jobs next year.

In the most recent monthly unemployment data, released in mid-December, local and state jobless rates hit new lows not seen since March 2001, a sign that Florida's economic recovery is on track. The number of jobs being created here has consistently made Florida the best among the 10 most populous states -- Florida is on track to add about 170,000 jobs in 2004 compared with the year before.

The downside: The vast majority of those jobs are in the service industry, traditionally low-skill and low-paying jobs that in some cases may not even offer benefits.

"We're still basically a tourism and hospitality-oriented economy," said Mason Jackson, head of Broward Workforce One, the local arm of the state employment agency.

But there are still a few "hot jobs" in higher-skill and better-paid industries in South Florida that are experiencing a critical shortage of workers. Jackson and his counterparts in Palm Beach County have worked on a variety of efforts to attract workers into these industries.

Some areas experiencing shortages include health care, especially for nurses, and construction, particularly for skilled positions such as managers. In Palm Beach County, officials have focused on training more workers for the biotechnology industry. They even offer fully funded educational programs and job placement specifically for the industry.

Here's a look at these three "hot" job fields, what the opportunities are, and how workers are being prepared:

Tending to a needThe state of Florida currently has about 152,000 registered nurses, but the projected need is closer to 194,000, according to the Florida Hospital Association's most recent data. Similar shortages exist for other kinds of nurses, and for doctors, pharmacists and medical technologists.

Holy Cross Hospital nurse Romaine Grant sees evidence of those shortages, especially for registered nurses whose duties can include anything from bedside care to management. She often sees ads in the newspaper and hears about sign-on bonuses for registered nurses.

"There are more opportunities open to you as a registered nurse," said Grant, 28, who lives in North Fort Lauderdale. Grant had been a licensed practical nurse for six years and always wanted to become a registered nurse, but said she couldn't afford the two-year program.

Then she found out Holy Cross offers full tuition, book stipends and flexible schedules that enable employees to work and attend school full time. She started two years ago. On Christmas Day, the cardiac ward nurse found out she had passed her boards and was now a registered nurse.

Holy Cross Chief Nursing Officer Debbie Saylor said the hospital is currently offering tuition assistance to 60 of its 800 nurses so they can obtain either associates', bachelor's or master's degrees in nursing. Such educational benefits help develop staff into registered nurses and stem turnover.

"We work really hard at retaining the nurses we have," said Saylor.

Broward's Workforce One two years ago started a program that took a three-pronged approach to filling positions in the industry. With a $1.14 million federal grant and a partnership with Broward Community College, officials reached out to high school students, tried to get out-of-work registered nurses back on the job, and helped licensed practical nurses train to become registered nurses.

More than 200 local high school students received college credit for a summer institute on nursing they attended. BCC also offered scholarships to some of the students. Almost six dozen out-of-work registered nurses who had left the profession enrolled in free refresher courses. And 355 licensed practical nurses received funding for training to become registered nurses.

Bullish on biotechA year before The Scripps Research Institute announced plans to set up a biotech institute and research village in Palm Beach County, work-force officials there had already started to focus on biotechnology as an "emerging industry" for the area.

The idea was that, if you start training workers, companies will come to the area, said Debora Kerr, a Palm Beach Workforce Alliance worker who now manages a $2.3 million federally funded education and training biotechnology program.

There are now 143 biotech companies in Palm Beach County, Kerr said, 173 in Broward and 235 more businesses in Miami-Dade.

The federal grant will help up to 110 participants find work in the industry after completing fully funded college courses in biotechnology. The program is designed for people who already have an undergraduate degree in math or science.

In January, as one of the program's first participants, Wellington resident Mallik Kotamarti will begin a one-year biotechnology certificate program at Florida Atlantic University. For Kotamarti, the career change comes after more than 20 years in the telecom industry.

Kotamarti, 44, took a buyout from telecom equipment maker Nortel in 1999, and has "bumped around" a lot since then, most recently working for a satellite company in Houston while his wife and family lived in Dallas.

"I had basically come to the conclusion that because I'm a much older worker, there wouldn't be opportunities for me" in the telecom industry, said Kotamarti, who has a computer science degree and an MBA. "People get scared when they hear I have 20 years of experience."

After a year of commuting and living apart, the family decided to move to South Florida. His wife, a doctor, easily found work here. Kotamarti planned to look for entrepreneurial biotech work and found out about the Workforce program while researching biotechnology degrees at FAU.

"I'm excited about this industry," said Kotamarti, adding that he sees biotechnology as an emerging industry for Americans now that so many other kinds of jobs have moved abroad.

Building a careerWith a semester left to go before graduation, Florida International University construction management student Erik Dreke has no worries about the future.

While he sees his friends who majored in engineering desperately searching for jobs, Dreke, 25, is already working full time for Coral Gables luxury home builder F&L Developers. Dreke is a project manager, someone who oversees the project, sometimes even including its finances, and coordinates work between contractors.

The construction industry faces a shortage of project managers; Dreke is often recruited by other companies.

"There's so many jobs, there's not enough people," said Miami resident Dreke, who eventually plans to start his own business. "For somebody like myself, making $35,000 a year before even graduating, it's pretty good." His pay is typical for those starting out, but more experienced project managers can make six-figure salaries.

As the real estate boom in South Florida continues, students like Dreke are finding they can pick their own jobs when they graduate.

"We get a lot of calls from companies," said FIU professor Irtishad Ahmad, chairman of the construction management department, which has about 200 undergraduate students and another 100 enrolled in the graduate program. "We can't help them much because most of our students are employed or about to be employed."

Construction is the second-fastest growth industry in the state, with a 3.9 percent increase expected in 2005, according to economic forecasts by the Legislature. Even though that includes unskilled construction jobs, the critical need is in positions such as carpenters, electricians, air-conditioning installation and mechanical workers, and construction superintendents.

"Trained, experienced people are difficult to find," said Len Mills, executive vice president of the South Florida chapter of Associated General Contractors.

The association has tried to tackle the problem at every level. For example, it has introduced curriculum materials to students as young as fifth-graders, who "build things with Popsicle sticks," Mills said. Also they help contractors identify laborers on sites who can be moved into apprenticeship programs.

Niala Boodhoo can be reached at nboodhoo@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4208.

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