Higher Education

Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind

New Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows big employment gains in health care, social aid

In this 2013 photo, Shannan Van Houten, a physician assistant, gives medical care to a patient at Golden Valley Health Center, CareNow, in Modesto, California. Physician assistant is a fast-growing and well-paid profession that is expected to add an estimated 39,700 jobs over the next decade.

In this 2013 photo, Shannan Van Houten, a physician assistant, gives medical care to a patient at Golden Valley Health Center, CareNow, in Modesto, California. Physician assistant is a fast-growing and well-paid profession that is expected to add an estimated 39,700 jobs over the next decade.

A glimpse into America’s future labor market suggests a boom in health care jobs, soaring employment in clean energy and a continued decline in manufacturing positions.

Those are among the key takeaways from 10-year employment projections released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The findings offer more evidence of widening socioeconomic inequality, the migration of jobs to the service sector and a drop in the number of middle-class jobs for workers with only a high school diploma.

This unfolding economic shift is challenging educators to shape curricula that will prepare students for positions requiring an elusive combination of soft skills — the ability to solve problems, communicate effectively and work with others — along with technical capacities.

“The skill requirements in jobs have increased remarkably in their depth and breadth,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “The pace of change is outrunning the ability of educators to provide those skills and to qualify people for entry-level jobs.”

Related: In one state, students are ditching classrooms for jobs

The health care industry is expected to add the most jobs by 2026, and, together with the social assistance sector, will account for 4 million new jobs — one-third of all new positions, according to the BLS estimates. In health care, there’s rapid growth projected at the top and bottom, but few well-paying jobs for those without education and training.

According to the BLS data, the number of home health aide jobs is expected to grow by 425,600 over the next decade. But these jobs, which require only a high school diploma plus on-the-job training, pay a median annual wage of just $22,600.

By contrast, registered nurse jobs, expected to grow in number by 437,000 positions, require a bachelor’s degree and pay a median wage of $68,450.

Jobs that require a master’s degree are projected to grow three times as quickly as jobs for people with only a high school diploma. Of the 30 fastest-growing occupations, 19 typically require some sort of postsecondary education, according to the BLS figures.

“It’s a different world,” said Carnevale. “The demand for skills has increased and the effect of technology during the recession was to kill off the high school jobs. The trend line is a shift toward postsecondary education or training.”

Of course, the BLS figures are estimates and are not a perfect window into the future. Some of the fastest-growing occupations today are in industries that started to boom only recently. For example, solar panel installer — a high school diploma-level job that pays $39,240 — is the fastest-growing profession in the U.S. Wind turbine service technician, which requires a high school diploma, plus training, and pays a more substantial $52,260, is the second fastest-growing profession.

But the number of jobs available in those occupations is expected to be relatively modest. BLS economists predict that jobs for solar panel installers will total an estimated 23,200 by 2026, while wind turbine specialists will number 11,300.

Other fast-growing occupations include STEM-related jobs, such as statisticians, software developers and mathematicians. These positions all require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Industries susceptible to international competition and automation are projected to sustain the biggest job losses. In addition to manufacturing jobs, other positions expected to dwindle over the next decade include tellers, secretaries and cashiers.

Some fields vulnerable to automation, such as taxi and truck driving, are still projected to record job growth by 2026, the BLS says. But many of those jobs are being absorbed by the so-called gig economy, which offers less predictable hours and pay.

How to best prepare students for workplace changes brought on by automation and other technologies, however, is not yet clear among educators and labor experts. “Everywhere I look, the message is all about the impact of artificial intelligence and drones on the future of work,” said Nancy Hoffman, senior advisor and co-founder of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, which seeks to help prepare young people for the workforce. “School systems need to change, but they needed to change fifty years ago, too. Our schools are way behind in terms of technology and helping our young people understand the labor market and plan a career.”

She and other workforce experts stressed that as educators try to equip young people for future jobs, they will have to move more quickly to connect the dots between high schools and the labor market, especially for disadvantaged students.

“As the gig economy grows, we are in a different situation: These jobs depend on social capital, networking skills, and these things are completely lacking in the education systems,” said Hoffman. “If we don’t pay attention, those without these networks and social connections will be left entirely behind.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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