It's hard to predict the future, especially if you're still struggling to figure out what's happening in today's economy. But predicting the future is exactly what you need to do if you're enrolling in college, starting a fresh career, or investing in new skills.
The pace of change in the business world is faster than ever these days, thanks largely to globalization and digital technology. One way to zero in on fields that will be hot in the future is to stay away from those that are not. The government's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes an annual list of declining industries that follow a few common trends. They tend to involve work that can be done more cheaply overseas, such as low-skill assembly-line work, or technology that's rapidly replacing human workers, as in call centers. Fields vulnerable to cost-cutting and downsizing—such as government—are vulnerable too.
Employers themselves sometimes provide useful hints about the kinds of skills they want. In the latest annual survey for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, companies planning to hire were most interested in grads who had majored in engineering, business, accounting, computer science, or economics. Unfortunately, many students prefer majors such as social sciences, history, education, and psychology, which aren't in high demand.
To develop a more thorough list of fields likely to offer plenty of jobs and good pay, I analyzed data from a variety of sources, including BLS and the industry-research firm IBISWorld, which projects future employment levels in dozens of fields. A couple rules of thumb: First, it still pays to have a college degree, even if you're worried about the expense. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company predicts that by 2020, there will be a shortage of 1.5 million college grads, which means employers will continue to place a high premium on better-educated workers.
Another important point: The most successful people tend to be lifelong learners who develop new skills long after they graduate from college or complete a training program. In fact, building multiple skill sets—such as analytical expertise combined with a liberal-arts background, or scientific knowledge with a law degree—can be a terrific way to differentiate yourself in a cluttered job market. Plus, the most lasting skills are often those that can be transferred from one field to another, as the economy ebbs and flows.
But you have to anchor your career somewhere, so here are 10 fields that are likely to flourish in 2020:
1. Data crunching. The era of big data is just getting started, with many firms eager to tap vast new databases to gather more info on their customers, their competitors, and even themselves. The challenge isn't just crunching numbers; it's making sense of them, and gaining useful insights that can be translated into a business edge. Marketing and market research are two growing fields where the use of data is exploding.
2. Counseling and therapy. There's now widespread recognition that mental health is as important as physical health, which is likely to increase demand for professionals in this field. The BLS expects the need for marriage and family therapists, as one example, to grow 41 percent by 2020.
3. Scientific research. New technology will continue to generate breakthroughs in medicine, manufacturing, transportation, and many other fields, which means there will be strong demand for workers schooled in biology, chemistry, math, and engineering. Some areas that show particular promise: biotechnology and biomedicine, nanotechnology, robotics, and 3D printing, which allows the manufacture of physical products from a digital data file.
4. Computer engineering. A lot of software development is done overseas these days, but the need for high-level computer experts able to tie systems together is still strong. In finance and investing, for instance, high-speed computing is increasingly a prime competitive advantage. And most big companies will need networks that are faster, more seamless, and more secure.