Job creation should be ‘Job 1’

By Pearl Freier

Unemployment in the technology sector of Massachusetts is nearing an all time high, according to analysts tracking the labor market.

However, books like “Impending Crisis: Too Many Jobs, Too Few People,” by Roger Herman and the recent EMC conference examining the science and engineering pipeline of math and science students indicate that the labor shortage crisis continues to exist.

The popular contention is that there is a shortage of engineering and scientific talent and it’s growing worse because fewer men and women major in these fields during their days as undergraduates or in graduate school.

While that labor shortage may well exist, there is another challenge facing Massachusetts: How do we convince our current engineering and science students they’ll have a job when they graduate? They are enrolled at a time when there’s a high volume of unemployed tech workers and business is increasingly outsourcing tech jobs overseas.

Education must be a priority for corporate America and the state and federal governments to build a qualified workforce, but job creation and job retention are critical, too.

While we wait for some ideas or the “next big thing” that will help create jobs, we can also identify the areas that have critical needs for the creation of new technology jobs and identify what those jobs look like.

For example, as our population continues to live longer, health care has critical needs for technical talent and positions that need to find the funding in order to exist.

Dr. Jeffrey Gelfand, the director of the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT) at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently offered some statistics to demonstrate the need for an increase in the application of technology in health care:

• Patients over age 65 now comprise close to 13 percent of the population, and take up 40 percent of primary physicians’ time.

• In the next decade, this population segment will grow by 25 percent and could assume 80 percent of physician capacity. This is cause for a potential crisis, unless there is effort made to applying technology and talent to health care.

As health care costs continue to rise, Gelfand says the overall decrease in hospital beds available due to budget cuts could cause a crush of patients in the system. He thinks such a crisis could be averted by smarter uses of existing technology and techniques that could reduce the cost of care.

More can be done, for example, with technology and preventative medicine, helping doctors to intervene with high-risk patients sooner, which could lead to a reduction in hospitalization stays.

Gelfand said the average hospital stay is 5.4 days. If that is cut to 4.4 days, the hospital’s capacity is also increased by about 20 percent.

Other areas where he sees technologies aiding health care and increasing jobs: helping senior citizens avoid medication errors and helping patients cheaply monitor their blood pressure at home. Gelfand said that increased home monitoring programs for patients will open up new jobs requiring more technologists as well as the development of programs and integrations of systems with provider organizations.

Dr. Joseph Kvedar, the director of Partners Telemedicine, along with his team, also confirm that the increased application of existing technologies can save more lives. Telemedicine is a growing area, which applies telecommunication to provide health care information and services. Telemedicine could include telephone consultations between providers and patients in various locations or conducting teleconferencing using videoconferencing equipment and satellites.

In some cases digital images are taken by a camera and transferred from one location to another to help with diagnosis and consultation. Using this technology, doctors are able to diagnose and recommend care in locations around the world including, areas that do not have access to quality care and experienced doctors. Technology can even bring the doctors remotely to the battlefield during times of war.

Kvedar also said that the use of communication technology in health care raises the standard of care for patients around the world, and gives patients and doctors access to the knowledge base in Massachusetts. Foreign governments are willing to pay for this product he said, especially for those patients afraid to come to hospitals in the United States since Sept. 11.

This increase in the deployment of communication technology and devices for home care will also create new jobs ranging from software developers to consultants, Kvedar said.

Because health care is just one area with potential for growth due to the projected increases in consumer demand, other areas with similar projected demand should be explored.

The key to training and recruiting a qualified workforce and addressing the labor shortage is to start by identifying the areas with critical needs for technology and to identify the jobs and their experience requirements.

While we can sit back and wait for the economic turnaround, we also can choose to act. We can find the ways to create the jobs that address critical needs in society while perhaps saving some lives at the same time.