Millions of jobs were lost during the Great Recession, but most of the job losses were concentrated in blue-collar industries like manufacturing.
And while the recession has technically ended, many of these laid-off workers still have not been able to find work. Their skill set is not a good fit for the kinds of jobs available today, or the jobs that will be created in the future. The manufacturing labor market, which supported a vibrant middle class since the end of World War II, is never coming back.
This shift is forcing people to change the way they work. It also disproportionately affects men, who dominated the blue-collar work force. To remain a part of the workforce, many are shifting to what some have called "pink collar" jobs.
The pink-collar term was coined during the Second World War, when women occupied jobs as secretaries, typists, and transcribers. But as the U.S. economy evolved, these jobs became defined as those that were traditionally dominated by women. They include nurses, doctor's aides, dental assistants, and teachers.
According to a recent New York Times report, this decade, nearly one-third of job-seeking males will fill positions in industries where 70 percent of the workforce has been female. The trend is taking place across all education and income levels. In other words, it's not just lower-income people with few choices that are making the shift.
It's not as if men are taking women's jobs. The market for these jobs is growing rapidly, and is expected to continue to grow. According to a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, total employment is projected to grow approximately 14.3 percent this decade, adding 20.5 million new jobs. Traditionally pink-collar industries like healthcare and social assistance are expected to gain the most jobs. An area where little growth is expected to occur is construction.
"Gender lines are becoming very, very blurry, especially in the medical field," says Kay Stout, an executive advisor with Oklahoma Professional Search, a firm that coaches people on career changes and how to find jobs. "You are hired by what you bring to the table."
Forces behind the shift. Two key factors account for this dramatic shift in the U.S. job market. The first is the aging of the baby-boom generation, or people born between 1946 and 1964. Some 76 million children born during these years are now retired or close to retirement. As they age, the need for medical care increases. Hence, the growing need for jobs in the medical field.
According to Susan Heathfield, a management consultant and human resources expert, nurses and dental assistants are expected to take on increased responsibility as the baby boomers retire. There are shortages of both dentists and doctors. Much of the less-tedious work is now falling to assistants.
"It's hard to become a dentist, so the field that's booming is dental hygienist. They're being forced to do more," she says. "It's the same thing in medicine. Doctors are in big demand, so at the same time, you have a whole other physician's assistant career field that's booming."
The second factor behind the pink-collar job growth is technology. More is being done in front of a computer, and much of this work doesn't require advanced skills. This makes the transition to a computer job easier, according to Stout. "So much of your ability to get hired will be based more and more on something that is directly related to the computer, and your ability to master the design or creation of a product on a computer," she says.
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Education adapting to changing economy. Both Heathfield and Stout say workers need to be reeducated, or plan their ongoing education accordingly if they want to be viable workers in the U.S. economy.
Heathfield says the key to getting students to think about preparing for careers in medicine or technology is to get them at an early age. "In third grade, if you have a child that is demonstrating interest in finding out information and solving problems, that's when you need to start encouraging them," she says. "If you can affect the parents to get to the kids at a young enough age, you change the course of their lives."
Heathfield added that it's important to learn computer skills at a young age. As time goes on, jobs will only become more dependent on technology. "A lot of kids don't have anyone telling them that one computer program that you might develop could change the world," she says.
According to Stout, students, especially those in college, should not think about courses in terms of traditional gender roles. Men who have an interest in medicine but don't want to be a doctor should inquire about what it takes to be a nurse. Women who have an interest in science should figure out what needs to be done to become an engineer.
"Students look at life differently now," she says. "You go into a classroom that was traditionally female and there are more and more males. The same is true for classes once dominated by men."