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 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 the 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.
Pets are more popular than ever, and some of them get medical care that's practically fit for a human. The BLS expects the need for vets to rise 36 percent by 2020.
6. Environmental And Conservation Science
Making better use of the planet's resources will be essential as population growth strains existing infrastructure. Green energy, despite some political controversy, still seems likely to boom. Developers need more efficient ways to heat and cool buildings. And dealing with global warming may require new technology not even on the drawing board yet.
7. Some Healthcare Fields
It's well-known that the aging of the baby boomers will require more caregivers in many specialties. Some healthcare jobs tend to be low-paying, with a lot of workers flocking to what are supposed to be "recession-proof" fields. And the need to lower overall healthcare costs could pinch some doctors, hospital workers and diagnosticians. But demand should be strong for nurses, optometrists, audiologists, dentists, physical therapists and some doctor specialists.
The boss earns a lot for good reason: His job isn't as easy as it might seem. Effective management in the future will require basic business knowledge plus the ability to oversee operations in many locations and countries, and some technical know-how. Anybody who can improve a unit's performance while lowering costs should rise quickly. The BLS and IBISWorld also expect growing demand for some support fields such as human relations, benefits administration and event planning.
The movement and management of money is technically complex, and integral to most companies. Plus, nontraditional investing firms such as hedge funds and private-equity firms are likely to grow as the traditional banking sector complies with new regulations and reins in risk-taking. That means there will be more need for finance experts. There may even be a shortage as students once interested in finance veer into other fields, turned off by the 2008 financial crisis and the vilification of banks.
It's often overlooked, but the need for innovators running their own businesses could be more important than ever in 2020. Forecasters expect strong growth in traditional businesses such as used-car dealers, hair and nail salons, pet grooming, and office services, which means anybody able to come up with better, cheaper ways to serve customers will reap a windfall. Technology startups will no doubt keep changing the way consumers work and live. And nobody really knows what the next iPad, Twitter or Pinterest will be -- except, perhaps, some entrepreneur who's dreaming about it right now. He or she may have a bigger impact on life in 2020 than anything the forecasters see coming.