The New Economy and Career Readiness: Part I


Where are the jobs in the new economy? There isn't a quick ad easy answer ... the answer is a mosaic of many different careers and opportunities.

Ask some small children what they want to be when they grow up.  Most likely, their answers will cluster around a few well-known occupations – teacher, firefighter, veterinarian or doctor.  Then ask their parents what jobs they have and the answers will be quite varied, including many jobs that children (and most high school and college students) have never heard of.

Over the past several years, with the help of various colleagues, student interns and others, I have been building a small online database of career interviews, called the Career Outlook Project.  The project includes informational interviews with people in a variety of careers, including questions about the education and training they had in preparation for their career and a profile of the skills that they consider important in their careers. 

One of the interview questions is “When you were in high school, did you know that you would be in this career?”  The answer is often no.  Many go on to comment that their current career field didn’t even exist when they were in high school.  Others say that their career has taken shape over time, shaped by particular skills and interests. Opportunities that emerged through previous jobs, hobbies, volunteer work or continuing education often led people to their current careers.  Many people said that in high school they knew they wanted to do something in their general field (the arts, science, math, human services) but didn’t know they would be in the specific job they now have.

Two other interview questions ask “what education and training did you have in preparation for this career” and “what education and training do you recommend for someone interested in this career.”   The answers show that many people took non-traditional paths to their current careers. While many jobs definitely require specific education and certification (such as a plumber, electrician, nurse, veterinarian or architect), there are others where career and educational paths may vary.

Another interview question asks about related jobs and job titles that people interested in this career field might want to know about, and about technology that will be important in the career field.  The answers provide a picture of a fascinating variety of career opportunities, some familiar and many that may be unfamiliar.

The current economy provides a mosaic of career opportunities.  While there are many well-defined career paths and many familiar jobs and job titles, there are also many jobs and career paths that are new or evolving or flexible.  The question “Where are the job opportunities in the current economy?” does not have a quick, neat answer. The question “where will the jobs be in twenty years” also can’t be answered in a quick answer.

The economy is fluid, with new opportunties always emerging.

  • Technology has changed virtually every field: consider the impact of technology on all areas of business and nonprofit management, production and marketing, as well as on specific fields, from healthcare to media and communications to music to bookstores and libraries to any other field of work.
  • Attention to the environment and to personal and community health have created many new jobs and reshaped other jobs.  Movement to locally grown and organic food is creating new opportunities in agriculture, marketing and distribution and community health.  Environmental awareness is reshaping work in architecture, design, construction, engineering and manufacturing. 
  • Different ways of organizing work have created opportunities in support of manufacturing, construction, technology, health care and other large sectors of the economy.  Research and development work, engineering design, software consulting and many other functions are organized entrepreneurially in smaller organizations that support larger manufacturing, construction, technology and healthcare organizations. 

Most important, jobs in the new economy are not a fixed commodity that “exist” but are a fluid set of opportunities that emerge through dynamic markets and business/social entrepreneurial efforts. 

What does this mean for high school students preparing for future careers?  In the  new economy, skills, interests and career management are as important as career-specific education and training.  While many people will enter career paths that have well-defined educational requirements, others will build careers based around their skills and interests and opportunities.  Others will blend these approaches, such as starting a career in nursing and moving into related fields such as healthcare management or community health programs.  

High school is a time to begin to develop interests and passions and begin to get a view of the many types of career opportunities.   It is a time to develop solid academic skills, to begin to gain career skills and experience,  and to develop a professional approach to work and career management.  And, as students plan for post-high-school experiences, it is a time to bring these skills, interests, experiences and insights into making thoughtful decisions about first steps and long-term goals.

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