If the recent conversations at my local coffee house are any indication of the true state of the economy these days, then we are all in for a very long year.

This morning, though, there was a ray of hope from the barista who regularly makes my chai tea latte with soy milk. After sharing morning pleasantries, I asked her about her life outside of work. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that her full-time job was as a surgical scrub tech in the surgery department at a local hospital. She found the position quickly, and it was similar to the work she had done previously in San Francisco. “The money is great,” she remarked, “and I work (at the coffeehouse) on the weekends so that I can unwind.”

Interesting. And symbolic of what recent labor trends suggest: the health industry is continuing to percolate in an otherwise tepid economy.

This trend now has me wondering whether the health care field could be the elixir for our sputtering economic fortunes. Certainly the demand exists relative to recent policy directives for some sort of universal health coverage. But often overlooked in these discussions is the potential impact of thousands of health care jobs being created for a city or region.

The University of Wisconsin Extension and Wisconsin Hospital Association released a new study entitled “Healthy Hospitals, Healthy Communities: The Economic Impact of Wisconsin Hospitals.” According to their research, hospitals in the Badger State have a significant impact on the Wisconsin economy, generating more than $22 billion in economic activity annually and employing more than 100,000 people in communities throughout the state.

In Louisiana, a state that has been buffeted by the twin effects of Katrina and the sagging national economy, efforts are under way to invest in two new badly needed hospitals in New Orleans. Louisiana State University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are projected to spend a combined $2 billion on the new hospitals, representing the largest single investment in the state since Hurricane Katrina. It is anticipated that this will attract top medical talent to the region and position the city as a hub for biosciences — a net gain of over 2,000 local jobs in health care, research and related services.

This is exactly what our nation needs, a booster shot that will spur job growth and economic vitality to areas that are in dire need. And it’s what the American workforce needs overall — more opportunities for decent salaries, so that people like the barista I met this morning don’t have to sustain themselves on a minimum wage job.