After graduating from Iowa State University in 2012, Ann Westerhaus didn’t immediately land a job in dietetics, her chosen field of study. Even an internship was out of reach.
“I didn’t quite have the experience I needed,” said Westerhaus, 23, of Cedar Rapids. “It’s so competitive.”
But just a few years ago the landscape for aspiring dietitians looked much different. Jobs were harder to come by, and student interest mirrored that – just 34 people applied for the ISU dietetic internship in 2007.
This year, Westerhaus was among those chosen for the ISU program from about 520 applicants nationwide.
“And I love it,” Westerhaus said. “I call my mom every day and tell her how much I love it. It has been amazing.”
The popular ISU program places applicants in internships both in Iowa and in other states. The program includes two sessions a year, lasting 25 weeks each, from January to June and from June to November.
From its growing applicant pool, ISU places just 15 to 20 people in Iowa-based internships and 30 to 50 in positions outside the state. And the boom in interest has program officials looking to add slots and opportunities, said Jean Anderson, senior clinician and director of the ISU dietetic internship.
“I do think that we’ll continue to have growth,” Anderson said.
The ISU program isn’t alone. Other dietetic internships across the state and nation are seeing more applications as well – including the University of Iowa’s program, which saw numbers climb from 62 applicants in 2010 to 90 this year.
Possibly driving student interest is a strong job outlook in the field. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment of dietitians and nutritionists is expected to grow 21 percent from 2012 to 2022 – faster than the average for all occupations.
“The role of food in prevention and treating illnesses, such as diabetes, is now well known,” according to the department. “More dietitians and nutritionists will be needed to provide care for patients with various medical conditions and to advise people who want to improve their overall health.”
Dietitians these days are working in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, cafeterias, clinics and even grocery stores, such as HyVee. Some are self-employed and have their own practices, and the Department of Labor reports that the annual median wage for dietitians was $55,240 in May 2012.
“We are pleased that the bulk of our graduates who are looking for work are employed as dietitians soon after leaving our program,” Anderson said about the ISU internship. “I think that speaks to the fact that the jobs are there.”
‘Hiring more dietitians’
Interns accepted into the ISU program work directly with professionals in the field – first observing and then practicing, Anderson said. Some – such as Westerhaus’s internship – involve work in a variety of settings, including hospital, school and community work.
“They are learning business skills and menu planning, and they also practice education and counseling,” she said. “They are able to work with classrooms and families in need.”
The variety of internship experiences mimics the growing diversity of dietitian-related jobs, according to Anderson.
“There are different career avenues – rather than just thinking about working in a hospital setting or a long-term care facility,” she said. “We know that the general public is much more interested in health and wellness and fitness.”
The UI dietetic internship accepts 12 applicants per year, and program officials said the spots are becoming harder to land as more students discover the profession and the opportunities available.
Laurie Kroymann, director of the UI dietetic internship program, said increased rates of obesity, diabetes and autoimmune disorders such as Celiac disease have made the public aware of the value of dietitians, which has created more jobs.
“I think some places are hiring dietitians that did not in the past,” Kroymann said. “And I think some places are hiring more dietitians.”
HyVee, for example, now aims to offer dietitian services at all its stores. And, Kroymann said, some school districts are replacing food service directors with dietitians. Some larger corporations are hiring dietitians for their employee wellness programs.
“And I think it will continue to increase, just because of the public awareness, health issues, the aging population and obesity,” Kroymann said.
‘It has been awesome’
Even within the hospital setting, which long has employed dietitians, their value seems to be rising, said Linda Fitz, manager of patient dietitian services at Unity Point Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids.
Dietitians there are responsible for both providing patient meals and clinical nutrition care. Often, Fitz said, physicians will order a patient be placed on a special diet based on a clinical situation.
“From there, it is our department’s responsibility to translate that into food and beverage options,” she said. “We try to meet patient desires within the constraints of the physician orders.”
On an average day, Fitz said, up to eight dietitians are available at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital, feeding about 250 patients and visiting with about 50. During her career, Fitz said, she’s seen the number of dietitian position explode.
“It has been awesome,” she said. “Since the 2000s, with the onslaught of groceries hiring dietitians, there has been a huge market for them in private practice and for companies. And we’re excited here for the possibilities for dietitians in physician offices.”
Westerhaus said she became motivated to pursue nutrition as a career after her brother was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. He lost weight and was unable to absorb nutrients, and Westerhaus said she was able to help him by putting him on a low-fiber diet and supplements.
“That made me have an epiphany that I wanted to go back and help families with chronic diseases,” she said. “He is my daily motivator still.”
Westerhaus started her ISU dietetic internship Jan. 6 and said she’s confident she’ll be able to make a career out of her nutrition education.“The general public has a greater appreciation for what dietitians do,” she said.