MIKE WALDEN COLUMN: Where’s the job market headed?

Published 11:50 am Friday, March 24, 2023

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Jobs are a crucial part — some would say “the” crucial part — of the economy.

Mike Walden

People take jobs to earn money. They spend the money on products and services to support their living. Businesses create jobs to make the products and services people buy.

One important feature of the job market is that it never stands still. As the economy changes, and the products and services people buy change, so, too, do jobs. Jobs that exist today may not be around tomorrow. At the same time, jobs that don’t exist today could be part of tomorrow’s economy.

Developments in technology are a key reason why jobs are both created and destroyed.

A good example is farming. When tractors replaced mules used for plowing, the number of acres a farmer could cultivate soared. As a result, farm jobs declined, but jobs in manufacturing tractors rose.

In the 21st century, there have been big advances in technology, such as computers, cellphones and data storage. Consequently, there have been ongoing changes in jobs.

About a decade ago two British economists predicted almost half of the jobs would be gone by mid-century. This conclusion came after a detailed analysis of how emerging technology would change the nature of jobs, allowing technologies like digital programs and robots to handle more tasks.

With the economy changing so rapidly — especially after the pandemic — can we still use predictions made even a few years earlier? Indeed, robots are becoming more capable, and a new technology, artificial intelligence, is just starting to be used.

Fortunately, last year the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a new analysis of how jobs might change in the future — especially which jobs are expected to significantly decline.

Before examining the new forecasts, let me review how much the job market has changed in just the last decade. BLS calculates that between 1999 and 2018, 15% of all occupations experienced job declines of 25% or more.

Looking ahead to the decade of 2019 to 2029, BLS expects several occupations to lose jobs. Included are housekeepers, tax preparers, reporters, cashiers, customer service reps, travel agents and computer programmers.

Interestingly, these are occupations with different salary levels. So, what do they have in common?

Most are occupations where the tasks now done by humans can likely be accomplished in the future by technology. Much of housekeepers’ work can be — and already is in some cases — performed by robots. Tax forms can now be prepared by online computer programs. In supermarkets, cashiers are being replaced by scanners. Customer service reps, travel agents and even reporters, while still including “real” people, are having more of their work provided by online websites.

But – you might ask – why are computer programming jobs projected to decline? Aren’t STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professions expected to be fast-growing?

In general, more STEM jobs are projected to be added through the end of the decade. BLS estimates STEM occupations will increase by 8% from 2019 to 2029.

Computer-aided software and artificial intelligence technology are forecast to replace many computer programmers.

Overall, total jobs are expected to increase by 4% for the 10 years from 2019 to 2029. Notice that the starting year of 2019 is prior to the pandemic, so some of this increase reflects the rebound in jobs after the COVID-19 recession of 2020.

Which occupations will have the largest increases this decade?

At the top of the list are nurses, renewable energy technicians, cooks, statistical and data scientists, and physical therapists. A look at this list reveals two driving forces: our aging population (nurses and physical therapists) and technology (renewable energy technicians and statistical and data scientists).

Cooks are among the top categories probably because people are eating out more frequently, and we like good meals.

All of these categories are expected to have job growth rates at least five times faster than the increase in total jobs.

Although they are not among the expected fastest-growing occupations, it is important to mention another occupational category: the “skilled trades” like carpenters, electricians, plumbers and bricklayers. Many of the tasks performed by the skilled trades are not suitable for technology. The problem is that retiring workers in the skilled trades are not being completely replaced by younger workers. To meet the 4% growth rate expected in the skilled trades during the current decade, more effort will be needed to attract qualified workers.

In the years ahead, look for substantial “job churning,” meaning some jobs will almost disappear while others surge in numbers.

Will we be ready to accommodate the shifts? You decide.

Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University.