Mixed Messages on Employment

April 19, 2011

04/19/2011–The Sunday New York Times “Education Life”, supplement had an interesting article, Top 10 List: Where the Jobs Are detailing the 10 US careers projected to grow the fastest between now and 2018. 

The data highlight the phenomenon known as the barbell economy—namely the growth in inequality and hollowing out of the middle class as new job creation is concentrated at the high and low end of the skill spectrum.

The encouraging news is that 7 of the top 10 growth occupations, including the top two—Biomedical Engineer (72%) and Network Systems & Data Communication Analyst (53%)—are high-paying and require at least a college degree.

The discouraging reality is that the number of new jobs projected in #3 and #4 on the list—Home Health Aide (461,000) and Personal & Home Care Aide (376,000)—is each greater than all of the other 8 occupations combined. And the average annual salary of these low-skilled workers is under $22,000, far too little to support a family.

While such labor market projections are notoriously difficult, particularly when dealing with major discontinuities such as the global financial crises and uncertainties about healthcare reform, some irreversible demographic trends, namely the retirement of the baby boomers, suggest this growth is inevitable. These projections also highlight the importance of distinguishing between percentage growth and absolute numbers of jobs when analyzing occupations. Even some slow-growing occupations, such as retail and fast food, are likely to account for far more net new job opportunities to replace existing workers than the high-growth, high-skill occupations.

This same gap between skills in high demand and employment opportunities for the majority is being played out throughout the economy. The ranks of unemployed and discouraged workers still outnumber available job vacancies by 5:1 and most Americans with jobs continue to struggle with little if any wage growth, while costs for essentials like gasoline are rising rapidly; and yet in Silicon Valley and other high-tech clusters, the competition for top young graduates fluent in the hottest programming languages resembles the peak of the dot.com era, complete with perks such as bring your pet to work, concierges to take care of all the needs outside the office, and even offers of venture capital so workers can start their own company on the side.

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The same Education Life supplement also contains an article, The Price of Perception, by my old boss and mentor Hank Riggs, explaining why tuition at the top private colleges continues to go up much faster than inflation or the earnings of most Americans, a key factor affecting access to educational opportunities for our most able students and a subject close to my heart as our son Sam tries to decide where he’ll be going to study next year.