Jobs with a future

With the job market in flux, how can colleges prepare students for any career?
By F.S. WOLFE  |  April 28, 2008

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Google it, and you’ll find the prediction takes various forms: a fifth/a quarter/a third of all jobs that people will be doing in 15/20/25 years have yet to be conceived, or the job you’re doing now won’t exist in 20 years, or not in the way you do it now. Pinning down percentages and time frames is almost beside the point. We can all name jobs that have become endangered or extinct in the past couple of decades: film projectionist, typesetter, computer programmer. On the other hand, in 1985 who was a Web designer, barista, personal trainer, or blogger?

It’s no news that occupations come and go and change. What is new is how fast the job market seems to be changing. Take, for example, the now-you-see-them/now-you-don’t phenomenon of thousands of US jobs lost to outsourcing. Careerplanner.com says nowadays it’s not uncommon for someone to have five careers over a lifetime; it doesn’t say whether that’s voluntarily or not.

Can you educate people to be ready for new jobs and career changes? How many freshmen picking a major will have to retool by the time they finish school, never mind in five or 10 years?

Constant change
“My father worked 45 years for one company, but those days are gone,” says Fred K. Foulkes, director of Boston University’s Human Resources Policy Institute. Foulkes has changed course a few times in his own career, moving from economics to labor relations to human resources. He cites the usual suspects — globalization, technology, and the interaction of the two — as being behind much of the change in the US labor market.

“A lot of jobs are going to India, China, Uruguay, and other countries,” says Foulkes. "You can no longer make assumptions about job security. A radiologist I know at Mass General said to me, ‘I don't have to worry about my job going away.’ But a company called Nighthawk Radiology is outsourcing the reading of X-rays. It’s good for patients whose local hospital may not have a radiologist on staff. The hospital sends an X-ray digitally overseas and has the results an hour later.”

Melanie Parker, executive director of MIT’s Careers Office, knows that predictions of what’s ahead — think 1950s sci-fi movies — don’t always pan out: “We’re not wearing shiny silver clothes yet.” But she hazards a guess that the green movement, global warming, geopolitics, and changing demographics, as well as globalization and technology advances, will be major influences on the job market.

“So much of the work we do relies on lots of things that are not terribly green,” says Parker. “What will that mean for how we work and what kinds of work will be available in the future? Another trend since 9/11 is the proliferation of jobs related to security and defense. Security is a burgeoning industry, and private contractors are doing jobs that used to be done by the military.”

Then there’s the graying of America. Parker wryly observes that those ever-competitive baby-boomers, the oldest of whom are now reaching retirement, are starting to compete “to see who can live longest and best.”

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