MIKE WALDEN COLUMN: Where will the jobs be?

Published 11:34 am Friday, January 1, 2021

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The overwhelming economic concern for a majority of individuals is jobs. There are two elements to this concern: will there be enough jobs for people who want to work, and what kind of training will those jobs require?

The worry about jobs has been elevated with the pandemic. The biggest drop in jobs during a three-month period in our history happened during last spring. Although jobs have increased since then, all jobs — and particularly all the same kinds of jobs — have not yet come back. So, if anything, the focus on how many and what types of jobs will be available in the future has become even more intense.

Mike Walden

In looking at the future job market, there are three questions to ask. First, will the number of new jobs be sufficient to keep unemployment low? Second, what specific occupations will be hiring? Third, what skills and training will be needed for these jobs?

Fortunately, a recent report provides some answers to these questions. Published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the report gives specifics on the occupations, skills and numbers of jobs forecasted in coming decades. The report can be used to inform not only job seekers, but also educational institutions teaching work skills.

The WEF sees job opportunities in seven broad areas, collectively accounting for 90 percent of future job growth. The categories are data and artificial intelligence (AI), engineering and cloud computing, product development, sales and marketing, healthcare, energy and human resources. Importantly, WEF sees more jobs collectively created in these areas than jobs that will be replaced by technology and machinery. In short, there will be jobs for those needing work — and who have the necessary skills.

I don’t have the space to describe all the jobs and skill requirements of each job category, but here are some highlights. Jobs in data involve collecting, organizing and analyzing the massive amounts of information that is now available. Jobs in AI use these data to equip machines with decision-making capabilities, such as in driverless autos. Top skills required for these jobs are computer programming and networking as well as statistical analysis and modeling.

If you have a job in engineering and cloud computing you’ll be working with developing, improving, managing and expanding the storage and use of data and information on physical servers external to your computer, termed “clouds.” Such storage devices have become popular because they can be accessed from multiple devices, and they have a high level of security and safety. Simply put, the “cloud” is the way today’s businesses and individuals store their information and programs. Computer software development, computer networking and web development are some of the sought-after skills for these jobs.

People involved in product development do — well — what the term says, product development. These can be new products — as well as services — in any field. Engineering and management are valued skills here, but so too are computer software skills and “trouble-shooting” skills, also known as quality control.

For those of you who aren’t computer experts — and I include myself as a non-expert — the next set of jobs in sales and marketing is more understandable. These types of jobs have been around forever, but they’ve added some recent changes. Rather than using face-to-face contacts, today’s marketing and sales are increasingly done using computers, and specifically the internet (sorry for those of you stuck in the 20th century, like me). Social media is rapidly becoming the go-to way to advertise products, as I recently discovered with my most recent books. Today’s jobs in this area combine skills in advertising, writing and graphic design with training in digital marketing and video production.

Jobs in health care are growing due to our aging population and our goal of addressing more health issues in the population. Typical occupations like MDs, nurses, therapists and support workers are included with newer jobs in making and operating medical equipment and developing and applying exercise programs. Each of the occupations requires specialized training. A newcomer skill in health care is simulation, where individuals with appropriate computer skills replicate operations and treatments for study and analysis. Also in the future will be greater needs for skills needed to perfect “remote operating.”

Energy is important to any economy because it’s the fuel that keeps economies going. Today we are likely on the cusp of a great shift in the type of energy used, moving from fossil-fuels to renewable fuels. Hence, jobs in renewable sources like solar, wind and biomass will be in demand, as will occupations that focus on making fossil sources cleaner. Skills in construction, installation, marketing and evaluation will be important to these jobs.

Last are occupations in human resources. These jobs cut across all industries and include people who work in short-term training and re-training, the interface between employer and employee, as well as in recruiting talent for companies. Skills in leadership, management, personal relationships and even foreign languages will be sought for these positions.

So there you have it — a roadmap to the fastest growing jobs of tomorrow, and what’s needed to get them. If you have children or grandchildren who ask you what they should study, now you have some answers. If you’re old like me (age 70), does it make you wish you were young again and just beginning a job career? I’ll let you decide.

Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University who teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.