The Standard You Walk Past is the Standard You Accept
The Art of Following Through

Clarify: Beware Those "Top 10 Jobs" Lists

The other day, a friend shared with me one of those infographics that talks about "demand jobs"--in this case, it's jobs that require little work experience. This is what it looks like. (Note, I'm going to use US information for this discussion, but the principles are generally the same, regardless of where you live)

Demand occupations

I see these lists all the time and they make me crazy because they often give people bad information about what's really going on in the job market and cause them to make some unfortunate decisions as a result. I especially see this with career changers and young people trying to figure out what to major in when they go to college. 

Taking Apart the Data

The next time you see a list like this, here's what you need to do. 

1. Look at the data source--where are they getting the information from? 

In the US, most of the time, these lists of "high demand" occupations are culled from US Department of Labor occupational data. This means a few things:

The information is generalized--it covers the entire country. But just because a job is "in demand" in California, doesn't mean you'll find employment in that occupation in Kansas. And unless you're prepared to move to whereever the jobs are (which most people are not), this could be a problem.

Often the information is outdated by the time you're reading it. Take the list I cited above. This data was gathered in 2008-09 to project job openings that would occur from 2010-2020. Do you really think that the market isn't going to have changed substantially between 2008 and 2020? 

In this case, this is a list of jobs that supposedly don't require work experience. This may have been true in 2008-09, but in the current market, most employers are demanding (and getting) people with specific work experience. Your odds of getting an entry-level position in these areas are significantly decreased because the market is so competitive right now. 

Furthermore, this doesn't take into account the rapid pace of automation and the impact that technology is having on these jobs. Again, using this list, many of these jobs are currently being automated away by sophisticated software and robotics. Yes, there may still be some openings, but these occupations will employ fewer people and the skills required to do the jobs will change. 

2. If it's available, look at the total number of jobs in the field and the number of projected openings, NOT the percentage growth

Often these lists are compiled based on percentage growth in a field. So, for example, a job will appear on a demand list because it's projected to grow by 15%. But you shouldn't really care about the growth rate. You should care about the number of jobs that will be available

Which is going to offer more opportunity? An occupation that is projected to grow by 100%, but is so small that means only adding a few thousand  jobs? Or an occupation that may only be growing by 1%, but it's so large it will be adding tens of thousands of jobs? 

The number you should be paying attention to is how many jobs are projected, not the rate of growth

You also need to look at the time frame for that projected growth. Often, if it's DOL information, it will cover a 10 year period. So it's not that 120,000 jobs will be created in one year. It's 120,000 jobs that will be created over 10 years. That's a BIG difference! 

3. Put the numbers in context.

In looking at labor market information, you have to put the numbers in context.

First, you have understand how truly huge the US labor market is. There are 155 million people in the labor force right now. This means that there are 155 million people between the ages of 18 and 65 currently working or looking for work. This doesn't include people who have dropped out because they've been discouraged about looking. It doesn't include people over age 65 who may still need to work or want to work. 

Right now, there are 11.8 million unemployed people. This does not include people who are underemployed--working part-time when they would prefer full-time, for example--and it does not include people who have dropped out.

So let's take one of those occupational areas listed above--Nuclear power reactor operators. Here's what the info shows:

Nuclear reactor operators

That 2000 is the number of projected openings expected to be created. . . between 2010 and 2020!! So over the course of 10 years, 2,000 jobs are projected to be created. That's only 200 jobs per year--across the entire country!! In a labor market of 155 million people, 200 jobs per year is NOTHING!

Most people don't dig that deeply though. We are likely to see that median salary ($77,550) and the fact that this job is on a list of "hidden gems" and think--"Wow! There's an opportunity!" But really, not much opportunity there at all, at least in terms of the number of available job openings. 

Another way we need to put things into context is to understand what demand is for an occupation in the area where we want to live. Are these openings going to be created in our local area or in some other part of the country? Usually you will have to do more research to determine if this is the case. And even if you can find that information, it's difficult to predict out more than a few years. 

The Big Lessons

The next time you see a list of jobs that are supposedly in high demand--and are tempted to use those lists in your planning--make sure that you look at the list with a critical eye. Be sure to: 

1. Find out how many jobs are expected to be created in the area you want to live in. That will be the information that is most useful to you. Percentage growth and jobs created some place you don't want to live is useless information. 

2. Find people currently employed in this occupation (or at a minimum, in the industry) and talk to them about what they are experiencing in the field.  What is happening with technology? How are job requirements changing? What do the best candidates do and have in terms of their education, work experience, etc.? This is where informational interviews can be very helpful. They're a great way to network, but more importantly, to learn about what's really happening on the ground. (I have some resources on informational interviewing here.

3. Find out what you need to do to be considered competitive in this field. Not qualified, but competitive. In this market, it's not about meeting minimum qualifications.  If you want a job in a particular field, you need to focus on being competitive, not minimally qualified

4. Prepare accordingly, keeping an eye on how things continue to change. While you're in school or developing your skills, you'll need to continue to pay attention to what's happening in the market for this job. As an example, I'm working with people graduating from Associate Degree RN programs. When they began their training 2 years ago, jobs for RNs were plentiful. Now that they're graduating, those jobs are drying up--hospitals are hiring Bachelor's degree nurses. The pace of change is dizzying, so you have to keep paying attention to how requirements are changing as well.

Also watch out for what technology is doing to a career area. See my previous articles on this--Tech is Eating My Job Part One and Part Two and how to deal with tech eating your job.

Remember, lists of high demand occupations can give you a useful starting point. But to really make them work, you have to use a critical eye and gather more information before you use that information for decision-making.

Take any "demand list" with a HUGE grain of salt. Look behind the numbers and keep doing your research to stay on top of what's happening. 


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