Some lost their jobs in the recession. Others are midcareer professionals looking to diversify their skills.

With an average age of 50, all are hoping for a bright future in one of the few parts of the economy that's adding jobs: health information technology.

Last month, about 70 students started an online course at Normandale Community College in Bloomington aimed at churning out professionals to work with electronic medical record systems at hospitals and clinics. The nondegree course lasts six months. Students, who must have either a health care or IT background, pay $500 to enroll.

The program is funded by a grant of $800,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to train a total of 300 students over 18 months.

For students, it's a bit of a gamble.

On the one hand, the federal government is requiring hospitals and doctors' offices to have electronic medical records by 2014. On the other, the Normandale program is brand-new and there's no track record on how employable those with this certificate will be.

Many of the big hospital and clinic groups run their own IT training programs. Nor is it always possible to predict, in an uncertain economy, exactly what skills will be in demand six months out.

"People are really looking to find what's going to help them gain a job and understand the environment," said Sunny Ainley, Health IT program lead at the college's Center for Applied Learning.

Ainley said she is working with health care organizations such as Park Nicollet Health Services, which owns Methodist Hospital, to make sure the skills the program teaches match what health care groups are looking for.

Michael Taiwo, 53, is one of those who grasped the opportunity.

Last year, Taiwo lost his job at a company that develops software for hospitals. A former nurse who also has a master's in management information systems, Taiwo heard about the new program through a networking club at the Minnesota WorkForce Center in Bloomington.

He now spends eight hours a day studying in front of the computer at his Lakeville home, and hopes to finish in May or June. The classes "reinforce what I already know and tell me what I need to know," he said.

Normandale Community College is one of several Minnesota groups receiving federal funds under the HITECH Act aimed at promoting health information technology. Other larger HITECH grants to the state have gone to the Minnesota Department of Health, Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and the College of St. Scholastica for research and higher-level training.

At Normandale, such professional development courses, where students earn a certificate but not traditional credit, are expanding. "The whole area of adult education is growing very fast," Ainley said.

For the six-month health IT training course, about half the current batch of students come from the health care world, with the rest from the IT world. Half are working full time and the rest are unemployed and actively looking. Students who complete the course can expect to apply for positions such as business analyst, project lead, IT support or trainer, Ainley said.

Seeking opportunities

Freida Martin of Minneapolis works as a quality assurance manager and business analyst at an IT consultancy in the Twin Cities. Martin devotes 15 to 25 hours a week to the online course.

This week was particularly intensive. "I was studying the concept of evidence-based medicine and various studies that can be used to verify treatment and diagnosis," she said. "It's complicated, challenging and fun."

Martin, 48, is also a licensed attorney who was looking for opportunities to combine her IT and legal background. "I see this as a way to do it, given the issues around [patient] security and privacy."

Another student, Lisette Wright, is a psychologist in private practice in St. Paul. Wright previously worked for an organization that adopted a very basic electronic medical record system.

"It was difficult for the entire staff, especially older clinicians and providers used to doing things in a certain way," she said. "Some people were very resistant."

Wright, 45, sees a niche for herself -- helping people cope with the stress of changing to electronic medical records. "I help people going through death and career changes," she said. "I saw this as somewhat of a natural leap to help people with anxiety and stress [linked to electronic records]."

Wright said she's talked to a few dental offices and clinics, though she admits "my work role has not been defined yet."

The college is taking applications for the next six-month health IT training course starting Jan. 4. The deadline for applications is Friday.

Chen May Yee • 612-673-7434