08/14/2012 04:41 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

The Partnership For A Healthy America

During the last five years, while the United States entered and then slowly emerged from a severe recession, there has been a very consistent bright spot in our struggling economy: the health care industry. Between now and 2020, no other industry is projected to grow as much. As our population ages, life expectancies increase and new treatments become available, the number of jobs in the health care and social assistance industry will increase by 29 percent across the decade ending 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

That amounts to 5.7 million new jobs for qualified workers in private and public hospitals, and nursing and residential facilities. Notice that I wrote "qualified" workers -- like many fields set to expand in the coming years, success in the health care industry requires increasingly specialized training and credentials. If you don't train as a registered nurse, for example, you won't get one of the more than 700,000 RN jobs coming to hospitals and other health care facilities around the country this decade.

You may have heard of America's skills gap. The bottom line is that we must close it -- our nation's health literally depends on doing so. In Chicago, which is projected to have 84,000 job openings in the health care industry during the next 10 years, Rush University Medical Center is actively working to prepare Chicagoans for well-paying health care jobs that remain unfilled.

To that end, we signed on to be a partner in City Colleges of Chicago's College to Career program, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced in December. The program aims to ensure Chicago residents are prepared for jobs in high-growth industries by leveraging the specialized knowledge and know-how of major companies and nonprofit organizations. As City Colleges' lead health care partner, Rush University Medical Center is providing resources, from equipment donations to guest lecturers, to Malcolm X College. We're even helping City Colleges design the allied health component of Malcolm X's new $251-million campus, which will be the centerpiece of the college system's health care programs just next door to the Illinois Medical District.

We're eliminating the distance between a community college classroom and a hospital lab by allowing Malcolm X College students to gain valuable experience at Rush through clinical rotations, career ladder programs and other initiatives. For example, students will receive hands-on learning at the cadaver lab at Rush, and they have an opportunity to participate in clinical rotations at Rush in radiology, respiratory care, surgical technology, nursing and emergency medicine.

Moreover, Rush staff members are working with faculty to guarantee City Colleges' allied health programs are aligned with industry needs. Because so many of the new jobs in the industry will require a bachelor's degree, we've created two career ladder programs for Malcolm X College graduates to continue their education.

Graduates of the college's medical radiography associate's degree program may be eligible to enroll at Rush University for a bachelor's degree program in imaging sciences, in which they can learn advanced imaging techniques (CT or MRI). And those who complete Malcolm X College's respiratory care program have the chance to enroll in our respiratory care bachelor's program. These types of smooth pathways between academic programs are essential to keeping students on track for success.

The divisive debate over federal health care reform obscured the good news about our health care industry: It will be a major supplier of American jobs in the coming years. Thankfully, we needn't debate how to prepare students for those jobs. We must align health care program curricula to in-demand skills, and wherever possible bring students out of the classroom and into the working world. We can't afford understaffed hospitals and labs in the coming decades -- the country's health depends on getting this right.