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Best Ill. job prospects are in manufacturing, medical

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CHAMPAIGN – Illinois’ widening medical industry and its old standby, manufacturing, may be the best places to look for a job this year, although some of the positions will require increasing levels of education and training and many won’t pay what they might have just a few years ago, experts said.

Overall, 17 percent of Illinois employers plan to add staff during the first quarter of this year, up 3 percent from a year earlier, according to a survey from the staffing firm ManPower Group. About 71 percent plan to keep staffing levels the same.

“Job creation has been relatively strong in the last two years,” said John Challenger, CEO of the Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

Even so, Illinois is like the rest of the nation: still staggering back from the recession 2007-09. Statewide unemployment hasn’t dropped below 8 percent since 2008.

The jobless rate in Illinois fell from 9.3 percent in December 2011 to 8.7 percent in December 2012, the most recent month for which data is available from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. But the state’s jobless rate in November 2007, the month before the recession started, was 5 percent.

The hole the country’s been trying to climb out of was so deep that, “bringing it back to normal has been a slow, year-by-year digging-out process,” Challenger said.

Experts say Illinois’ biggest job creator in 2013 could be the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is expected to ratchet up the demand for a wide range of jobs.

Hospitals may need to add staff in positions that require everything from a four-year degree plus experience to entry-level jobs that require little education.

St. John’s Hospital in Springfield has been hiring nurse navigators – experienced registered nurses who help patients literally navigate their way through treatment, answering questions before and after, said Pat Schulz, head of the hospital’s human resources department. The pay is $22 to $30 an hour.

The hospital hires about 140 RNs a year for a variety of positions around the hospital, many of them straight out of school, she said. But the new ones don’t head straight to the hospital floor on their own, instead spending three to four months in additional training as nurse residents.

But the hospital, like others, anticipates hiring lower-wage, lower skill positions, too. “If our beds are full, then we need more housekeepers, we need more food service,” Schulz said.

Manufacturing job growth also should continue this year, job-market watchers say.

Even with decades of Rust Belt exodus, companies that make things in Illinois – auto parts, heavy machinery, medical devices, hardware and more – have been a relatively steady job provider in an uneven recovery.

Over the past year, Illinois’ manufacturing job base grew 2.4 percent, from 579,900 jobs in December 2011 to 594,100 last month. One in every 9.7 nonfarming jobs in Illinois is in manufacturing.

“Manufacturing in Illinois is going to always be relatively strong,” said Tom Gimbel, CEO of the Chicago-based staffing firm LaSalle Network. “You’ve got Caterpillar and Deere. ... That’s Midwestern products and Midwestern values. It mirrors the types of people that are out there. You’ve got people that want to have a [steady] job for 30 years.”

One key area that helped create new manufacturing jobs last year was auto parts, whose makers enjoyed a healthy 2012 with the resurgence of auto sales due to factors such as the improvements in the economy to pent-up demand – many would-be buyers held off through the recession. Chrysler, for instance, increased production at its plant in Belvidere and said it needed 1,800 new workers to do so.

That growth started to slow late last year as overseas auto sales slowed, National Association of Manufacturers chief economist Chad Moutray said.

That’s one unknown that could have a big influence on Illinois’ manufacturing health this year, Challenger said. “It’ll be important for the state’s economy to see consumer spending on autos hold up in 2013,” he said.

New factory jobs, though, typically require a heavy dose of training to deal with an increasingly technical world. Community colleges now offer a wide range of manufacturing-related credentials in anything from logistics to quality control, said Jim Nelson, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association.

“Everybody who wants to work in today’s manufacturing environment needs some post-secondary education,” he said. “The K-12 system does go a long way to preparing students for the world of work, but because we now rely so much on robotics, computer animated systems.”

It’s the same way in the health care industry, said Joel Shalowitz, a physician, professor and director of health industry management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

“We are really entering an era where somebody’s going to need a higher level of training – and not just education, but training,” Shalowitz said.

Even with reasonably strong job creation, many of the post-recession jobs tend to pay lower wages than jobs lost to the downturn. The median hourly wage in Illinois in 2007 was $15.80, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of $17.14 in 2011, the most recent year for which the BLS has data. But the actual hourly wage was $16.95.

A series of recent stories by The Associated Press found a similar trend around the country. Half the 7.5 million U.S. jobs lost to the Great Recession were in industries that pay middle class wages but only 2 percent of the 3.5 million gained back are in such industries. Seventy percent, in fact, are in low-wage businesses. Technology has done away with many jobs.

Some but certainly not all of the jobs expected to be created by President Obama’s health care law, though, would carry higher-than-average pay.

“There’s technology jobs, so that’s developing new products, things like drugs, devices, procedures,” Shalowitz said. “Not just the scientific area, but also the management of it. You [also] need marketing.”

A medical device-maker, Cook Medical, opened a plant in Canton last year, for instance.

One area that isn’t expected to produce new Illinois jobs this year is government employment because of the state’s massive budget deficit pension obligations.

Government employment dropped almost 1 percent in Illinois last year. That’s a loss of 7,100 jobs, down to 834,500, according to the state Department of Employment Security.

“It’s as bad as any state in the U.S.,” Challenger said. “We’ll continue to see jobs cuts in 2013 in the public sector – teachers and policemen and firefighters.”

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