Crystal Smartt looks around at her college-educated friends and, despite their degrees, sees them scrambling.
"A lot of my friends with other degrees are really struggling to get a job in their field, even those with MBAs," she said.
That's one reason why the 24-year-old employee of Memorial Hospital is studying to become a nurse.
"There's a lot of job security with being a nurse," she said.
Nursing is one of the fields that, amid the worst job market in 25 years, is still in demand. But it's not the only one - employers also are eager to hire physical therapists, pharmacists, nuclear engineers, computer specialists and math instructors.
"In the near term, it looks like health care and government are going to be the engines of growth," said Dr. Bill Fox, the state's chief economic forecaster at the University of Tennessee. "In most of the economy, unfortunately, we're seeing extraordinary job losses."
Over the past year, employment in the six-county Chattanooga metropolitan area fell by 6,300 jobs, including a net loss of 2,000 manufacturing, 1,800 transportation and 1,200 construction jobs, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But the bureau also estimates that state and local government employment in the Chattanooga area held steady over the past year and the health services industry added 700 jobs.
"Other than health care and the federal government, we're not seeing a lot of areas of hiring right now," said Kristi Casey-Hart, a counselor at Dalton State College in Dalton, Ga.
Government and its contractors could play an even bigger part of the local job market in the future. The federal stimulus package will pump more than $1 billion into East Tennessee projects, and TVA is boosting construction staff for another reactor at the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Spring City, Tenn.
In the nursing program at Chattanooga State Technical Community College, many of those preparing to become registered nurses say they either already have or soon will land a job.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics said registered nurses will be the biggest growing occupation over the next decade.
Demand also is high for other medical specialists such as pharmacists, radiological technicians and physical therapists.
"I've worked in physical therapy for 30 years, and I can't remember any time that there was not a demand for more PTs," said Debbie Ingram, director of clinical education at UTC's physical therapy department. "With the aging population, the demand for physical therapy in going to grow even more."
Last week, Chattanooga's three major hospital groups - Erlanger, Memorial Hospital and HCA Parkridge - collectively were trying to fill 205 clinical care jobs. Most of the job postings are to replace workers who are quitting or retiring, hospital executives said.
Attrition also is continuing to create job openings in local schools, law enforcement and at the Tennessee Valley Authority.
"We're still seeing demand for teachers, but it is very specialized in math, sciences and special ed," said Jean Dake, director of placement services at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
During a public safety job fair last week, the Hamilton County Emergency Communications District listed 15 open jobs in Chattanooga and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was trying to fill 200 open positions nationwide. Walden Security, TVA and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department also took applications for guard and officer positions.
"Police officers are always needed, and I just hope I can get one of these jobs," said Gregory Sutton, a 21-year-old communications student at UTC who applied for several of the available jobs at the job fair. "I need to find a job with benefits."
TVA also is taking applications for its new in-house nuclear security staff and continues to solicit engineers, computer specialists and skilled craft workers for its power plants. Susan Stout, senior manager for shared resources at TVA, said the federal utility expects to hire at least 1,200 workers this year.
Fastest growing jobs
The fastest growing occupations in Tennessee and Georgia include:
1. Network systems and data communications analysts, 4.5 percent a year
2. Computer software engineers, applications, 4.5 percent a year
3. Home health aides, 4.3 percent a year
4. Medical assistants, 4.2 percent a year
5. Physician assistants, 4.1 percent a year
6. Special education teachers, 3.9 percent a year
7. Chemistry teachers, 3.7 percent
8. Pharmacy technicians, 3.6 percent a year
9. Physical therapy assistants, 3.5 percent a year
10. Rehabilitation counselors, 3.4 percent a year
Source: Georgia Department of Labor, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development
"The areas that we are really focused on right now are in engineering and in filling some of our craft training programs (for nuclear operators and skilled technicians at power plants)," she said.
"There has been some slowdown in our attrition because of the economy, but we still need to fill our pipeline for skilled crafts to continue to operate our existing power plants and be ready to add new units, if we move in that direction," she said.
TVA and other employers also want to hire computer network system and data communication analysts to help analyze business and plant information.
The utility's decision last year to finish the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor is projected to add up to 2,500 temporary construction workers at its peak next year. TVA also is looking at whether to finish or build new units at the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in northeastern Alabama, which could create more than 1,000 more nuclear plant jobs.
"TVA is one of the bright spots right now, and we're trying to prepare students to meet their needs," said Tim McGhee, head of the engineering technology department at Chattanooga State, which recently reinstated its radiation protection technology program.
The construction of TVA's $2.5 billion Watts Bar plant, combined with the start of the $1 billion Volkswagen auto assembly plant and plans for a $1 billion Wacker Chemical plant in Bradley County, also should provide a boost to the construction industry over the next two to three years.
But in the past year, the number of construction and mining jobs in metro Chattanooga plunged by nearly 20 percent, the biggest percentage drop of any major employment category.
"It's a very tough market to try to find any kind of job right now," Karen Hambrick, a 48-year-old Chattanooga worker who has been unemployed since last October, said while filling out job applications last week.
The planned 2011 startup in Chattanooga of Volkswagen's only U.S. production plant should give the local job market a boost ahead of the national economic recovery, Dr. Fox said.
VW has hired about 120 local workers so far and expects to double that number by the end of the year. But most of the 2,000 workers needed for the plant - and an even larger number expected to be hired by Volkswagen suppliers and related businesses in the region - will be added during 2010 and 2011.
Hunter York, a 21-year-old student from Cleveland, Tenn., is studying automatic controls and electrical engineering at Chattanooga State to get ready.
"One of my main goals is to get hired by a company like Volkswagen," he said. "I think that would be a good occupation, not just a job."
Job counselors also urge those out of work to keep looking.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that the U.S. jobless rate jumped last month to 8.5 percent as employers nationwide shed a net 663,000 jobs. But amid the overall decline in employment, 3.4 million Americans still joined the labor force and got jobs during March and another 2.1 million previously unemployed workers found jobs.
"It's important to remember that even when the overall economy is in decline, there are still employers hiring workers every day," Dr. Fox said.
Even in an otherwise shrinking industry, some employers are hiring, or rehiring, workers, he said.
Mueller Corp., which laid off 170 workers from its Chattanooga pipe and valve fittings plant during plant cutbacks in November and February, recalled 36 workers last week.
"I was glad, glad to be back," said Anthony Upshaw, one of the displaced Mueller workers back on the job.