The economy is changing.
In recent decades, technological advancement and global competition have spurred innovation, economic growth, and major changes in both nature and scope of work.
In 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes aptly identified an emerging problem he referred to as technological unemployment. “This means” he wrote, “unemployment due to our discovery of means of economizing the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”
Some 87 years later, remote-controlled drones are making deliveries, automated self-checkout is available at most major retailers, and Google has unveiled a car that can drive itself.
These changes are surely unnerving for a sizable portion of the workforce. Many employers have altered the way that they produce goods and services, and workers are faced with the challenge of adapting to these changes.
A prime example is U.S. manufacturing; MIT Technology Review points out that while the industry is productive as it’s ever been in terms of output, the actual employment level of manufacturing workers has been virtually stagnant since the 1980s. Similarly, Voice of America cites a study concluding that over half the 3.5 million manufacturing jobs created over the next 10 years are projected to be unfilled because of employers’ inability to locate individuals with the right skills.
These findings are disappointing to be sure, but it’s critical to note that opportunity has shifted rather than dissipated. By learning skills that are highly valued and exploring career paths in new and emerging industries, workers can adapt to the changing nature of the economy. Many industry clusters, like manufacturing, are evolving and creating new and “advanced” sectors where workers can thrive if they develop modern skill sets.
New and emerging occupations: the ones to watch.
Many of the occupations that have the brightest outlooks in terms of growth are characterized by the need for technical skills. O*NET defines these as “developed capacities used to design, set-up, operate, and correct malfunctions involving the application of machines or technological systems.”
Projected growth in demand for occupations such as manufacturing engineers, technicians, and technologists indicates the need for workers to develop appropriate skills in the new economy. Similarly, O*NET projects an increase in demand for robotics engineers and technicians, reflecting the automation shift.
The knowledge required for these technical occupations is rooted deeply in mathematical and analytical problem solving. Some of the most highly sought-after individuals possess knowledge of sophisticated computer software that allows them to manage information, perform advanced technical processes, and design models or manufacturing tools.
A second high-growth cluster relates to the application and maintenance of data. During my time as a student, I had the opportunity to access various types of statistical software to analyze, manipulate, and collect data for research projects. O*NET shows that familiarity with tools like these is a frequently recurring wish-list item among today’s employers.
This preparation proved very significant when I was transitioning to the workforce, and I’ve since been able to apply the skills and practices I developed in the work I do today. Demand for database architects and data warehousing specialists is projected to grow rapidly to accommodate the exponential increase in information collection that accompanies widespread automation.
Another significant trend among new and emerging occupations is their association with the search for modern solutions. Andrew McAfee of the MIT Center for Digital Business stated in a Voice of America interview that students must be encouraged to “figure out what problem we should go chase down next.” Technicians for biofuel, geothermal, solar, and wind energy are all listed as high-growth careers on O*NET and will only grow faster.
The highest costs in these areas are those associated with initial production and decrease with scale, incentivizing expansion and thus job creation. Equally great will be the need for those in sales, marketing, and analysis to support the massive growth in sustainable energy infrastructure that will take place.
Creating human capital is a win-win.
Obviously, various levels of education or training are required to pursue emerging tech occupations, but for those who are interested, the time and resources expended to this end should be seen as a worthwhile investment. In the long run, prioritizing skills that lend themselves to advanced sections of industry is beneficial at both the individual and macroeconomic levels.
Historically high levels of production are attributable, in part, to improvements in what is known as “human capital,” or the expertise, knowledge, and experience we possess that allows us to complete specialized tasks and provide a greater individual contribution to the economy. What this looks like in practice can take many forms in different settings. It could be participating in career and technical education programs in school or taking advantage of professional development opportunities at work.
Investment in human capital allows for more value added by a single individual. Applying this at an aggregate level translates to a higher rate of economic growth, i.e., a larger economic pie for all of us to enjoy. Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution estimates the individual contribution in terms of production could be approximately double that of the non-advanced sector (in a given industry), where workers in advanced sectors generated an average of $214,000 in output compared to $108,000 for those working in traditional sectors. Speaking generally, this is how we improve.
Getting where you’re going.
The examples of high-growth occupations I’ve mentioned represent only a small fraction of those available. Interested in pursuing one? Plan accordingly. A common mantra here at Kuder is this: You cannot be what you cannot see™. Understanding interests, skills confidence, and work values can go a long way in helping students and job seekers to productively explore professional possibilities in the new economy.
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