Looking at the future.
Recently, interest in future job market opportunities has been heightened by two factors. First, major industries such as automobile, steel, machinery, and textile manufacturing have been racked by two major recessions and increased foreign competition, causing plant closings and sharp declines in employment. Second, there has been a much heralded appearance of new technologies--such as microelectronics and genetic engineering--that have the potential to alter greatly old industries and occupations and create new ones. Students, counselors, and planners wonder how these factors are likely to affect the industrial and occupational makeup of the economy and what skills tomorrow's workers will need.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been projecting occupational employment trends for nearly 40 years for use in career guidance and educational planning. But the Bureau is not alone in developing information about the future world of work. Many others also publish such material. This article seeks to alert users to the different approaches authors use when writing about the future; points out the limitations of the literature; and highlights some of the different views that have been expressed on two major issues concerning the future job market--the importance of manufacturing and emerging careers.
How Authors Look at the Future
Predictions about the future are not new. In his recent book, The Patterns of Expectations 1644-2001, Ignatius F. Clarke states that modern literature about the future had its origins in the late 1700's, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. During this period, there was a growing awareness that the future would differ from the past because of advances in science and technology. This realization led to many works in which authors discussed the shape of the future. The books that appeared then and since can be grouped roughly into two categories--the speculative and the scientific.
Many writers about the future have relied largely on speculation to describe the shape of things to come--writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. One of the earliest and most important of the speculative works was L'An 2440 by Sebastian Mercer. L'An went through 11 editions between 1771 and 1793, was translated into three languages, and inspired books by a host of other writers. Mercer's predictions for the year 2440 were the result of his speculation about the effects of the technology emerging during his time. Mercer predicted that this technology would enable society to create a near perfect world. He envisioned, for example, that balloons, which had first been flown in Paris in 1783, would transport goods and people around the globe. To an extent, Mercer's predictions came true. In the 1920's and 1930's, giant dirigibles were used to transport people across the Atlantic, and today there is increased interest in using dirigibles as a fuel-efficient form of transport. However, as we know, technology has developed far more than Mercer anticipated. And, while technology has improved many aspects of life, it has not created a near perfect world.
Five years after the last edition of L'An was published, another author tried to anticipate the future through a more scientific approach. In 1798, Thomas Malthus's Essays on the Principle of Population used geometrical and arithemtical ratios to show that as scientific advancement increased life expectancy, the population would grow faster than food supply--resulting in widespread famine. Malthus's predictions proved incorrect because he had not anticipated improvements in agricultural technology. However, his ideas gained enough attention to spur other attempts to 'forecast' the spur and to earn the discipline of economics a nickname that has stuck to this day--the dismal science. According to Ignatius Clarke, forecasting was given impetus by the problems caused by industrialization, the development of social science theory, the improvement of statistical methods, and the advance of literacy and education. Both speculative writings about the future and forecasts continued to develop in the 20th century as technological advance and social change constantly reinforced the idea that the future would differ from the past.
Today, many individuals and groups are writing about the future. Authors such as Arthur Clarke and Alvin Toffler use their knowledge of technology and society to speculate about many political, social, and economic issues. Many groups do forecasting. Private consulting firms forecast how stock prices will move, how citizens will vote, how consumers will spend money, how many houses will be built, and a variety of other items. Federal agencies also produce many projections: the Bureau of the Census projects population growth, the National Science Foundation estimates the future demand and supply of scientists and engineers, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the size and composition of the labor force and industrial and occupational employment.
BLS publications such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook and Occupational Projections and Training Data present information on future employment opportunities specifically for the use of students, counselors, and educational planners. Some other publications also focus exclusively on the future job market, such as Emerging Careers: New Occupations For The Year 2000 and Beyond, by Norman Feingold and Norma Miller, and the Science Resource Studies of the National Science Foundation. In other works, information about the future job market is presented along with discussions of other social, political, and economic topics. Some examples are Naisbitt's Megatrends, Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave, and Encounters With The Future by Marvin Cetron and Thomas O'Toole. Some works, however, are so speculative and broad in scope that their application to career planning is marginal. Even eliminating these leaves a wealth of information--some of it conflicting--about the job market. When using this information, counselors and jobseekers should remember that all information about the future contains elements of uncertainty and subjectivity.
Limits of Forecasting
The future is not predetermined; rather, it is largely, though not completely, a matter of the choices we all make in the present. Because forecasters cannot accurately account for all the economic, technical, political, and other changes that our choices bring about, it is not possible for them to describe the future with certainty.
There are differing degrees of uncertainty, however. General trends can be described more confidently than specific changes. It can be stated with a relatively high degree of certainty, for example, that computers will become increasingly important in many businesses. Predictions about the number of jobs that will be available in computer-related occupations are much less likely to be accurate. Such predictions require the author--unless he or she simply pulls a number out of the air--to define the relationship between the use of computers and the level of employment in each computer occupation, the growth expected in the use of computers, the effects of changes in technology, and many other factors. Because many of these factors are difficult to predict, any specific forecast based on them is of course uncertain.
Both specific and general information can be useful in evaluating future job markets. Consider, for example, the information in Naisbitt's Megatrends and in BLS publications.
Naisbitt writes about 10 trends that he believes are shaping the future. Two of these 'megatrends' are that most people will produce information rather than goods and that many American firms will compete with foreign firms. Although Naisbitt makes no numerical projections, he does point out some of the implications of these two 'megatrends,' such as a shift in the occupational composition of the work force and a decline in employment in certain manufacturing industries.
The Bureau, on the other hand, produces a set of numerical projections for 260 industries and 675 occupations. These projections are intended to describe in detail future job market conditions for the entire economy. The projections are based on assumptions about broad trends in the economy that could be viewed as BLS's 'megatrends'.
BLS projections are developed primarily for the use of young people who will have to implement their plans within 10 to 15 years. Many other authors such as Naisbitt do not have this specific purpose as the primary objective of their work; rather, they are interested in broader and longer term directions of society and the economy. Students should be cautious in using information developed primarily for other purposes in planning their careers, as they must be cautious in using all information about the future.
Authors use many methods to determine the "range of real possibilities" for the future. However, virtually all methods depend on jugments and assumptions. Companies such as Chase Econometrics use complex mathematical models to project economic indicators. Naisbitt analyzes the content of newspapers to identify major concerns of the country. Marvin Cetron has stated that events in Sweden often point the direction that America will follow. BLS projections of employment are developed from a model of the economy that is based on many assumptions about the structure and level of economic activity. The BLS projections also rely on the judgment of economists about changes in trends. The necessity of using judgment and assumptions means that all forecasts will be somewhat subjective. As Clarke says in Patterns, ". . . as belief or temperament inclined some writers to describe the worst of all possible futures, different ideas or a more sanguine frame of mind caused others to imagine the far happier condition of life in coming centuries."
Views on the Future of Manufacturing
Several authors have stated that they expect the manufacturing sector of the economy to decline in importance. Increased factory automation, competition from foreign firms, and the movement of American manufacturing facilities overseas are the key factors expected to contribute to this decline. But this proposition is put forth in several forms.
In Megatrends, Naisbitt states that we have become an information society instead of an industrial one. He dates this change to the mid-1950's, when white-collar employment began to exceed blue-collar employment. Since white-collar workers create and process information instead of goods, information, according to Naisbitt, will be the driving force in the future economy, the force creating new jobs. In The Third Wave, Toffler contends that smokestack industries such as iron and steel, automobile, and textile manufacturing--the backbone of the 'second wave' economy--are declining in importance, but that the 'third wave' industries such as electronics, lasers, optics, genetics, and ocean science are becoming more important. In an article in The Futurist, Marvin Cetron predicts that manufacturing employment will account for only 11 percent of total employment by 2000, down from 28 percent in 1980.
It is important to note that most authors do not expect manufacturing to disappear from the economy. Naisbitt says, "finally, the transition from an industrial to an information society does not mean manufacturing will cease to exist or become unimportant." And Toffler states that some second wave industries will survive in the third wave economy by taking advantage of third wave technology such as robots.
Other authors are more optimistic about the future of manufacturing. Keith McKee, Director of the Manufacturing Productivity Center, says that increases in output resulting from the use of automation could offset productivity gains and keep employment from declining drastically. BLS has for some time stated that manufacturing employment will decline relative to that of service-producing industries and that certain manufacturing industries will experience declines in employment. However, BLS does project manufacturing employment to grow as a whole and some manufacturing industries such as computer manufacturing to grow rapidly. Part of the difference can be explained by the time frame of the forecasts. BLS's latest projections are for 1995. Some of the new industries discussed by other authors will only be in their fledgling stage by then. Space manufacturing cannot become a significant business until there is a permanent space station and it is cost effective for businesses to establish manufacturing plants in space. This will not occur by the mid-1990's. But much of the difference between the BLS views and those of others results from an honest disagreement over the shape of the future economy.
Views on Emerging Occupations
Most forecasters recognize that changes in technology will alter the types of occupations in the future economy, and they have identified many emerging fields. In Emergin Careers: New Occupations for the Year 2000 and Beyond, S. Norman Feingold and Norma Miller point to careers in computer-aided design and manufacturing, robotics, space manufacturing, ocean development, and energy sources. Cetron and O'Toole, in Encounters with the Future, also list a number of emerging occupations, including robotics technician, laster technician, housing rehabilitation technician, and others. Caroline Bird, in The Good Years, suggests that teaching will reemerge as an important career in the years ahead as people have more leisure time to spend studying.
While few forecasters question the necessity of identifying new occupations or the employment potential in some new fields, several have questioned the emphasis put on emerging occupations in career guidance. In an address to the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, Herbert Bienstock, a former BLS Regional Commissioner, stated that we have spent a great deal of time looking for the new and emerging occupations although our real challenge is to improve the skills of people for the great array of jobs that already exist. He also contends that, while it is important for the researchers to keep an eye on the new occupations and activities, it should not be the major focus of career planning.
There are several reasons for not focusing too much attention on emerging occupations. Many traditional occupations will offer substantial employment opportunities in the future. According to BLS projections, for example, there will be about 700,000 new jobs for secretaries between 1982 and 1995. Because emerging occupations are small, none are likely to offer that many jobs during the time period. BLS is not alone in projecting ood opportunities in existing occupations. Cetron and O'Toole indicate that several existing occupations are expected to have bright futures. These include operating engineer, heating/air-conditioning mechanic, and appliance servicer. In other articles, Cetron also states that no occupation will be in greater demand in the future than computer programmer--an occupation that has existed for 20 years. Even Toffler, who foresees a massive shift in the nature of the economy, has stated that there will be demand for many kinds of skills in the future.
Another reason for not focusing exclusively on emerging occupations is the risk of planning to enter a field that will not in fact emerge as expected or as soon as expected. During the energy crises of the 1970's, for example, many forecasters predicted substantial growth in industries and occupations involved in developing alternative energy sources. In an article in the Occupational Outlook Quarterly in the Spring of 1977, Russell Flanders stated: "In addition, expanded efforts to utilize new sources of energy, such as solar or geothermal, may create new industries and occupations or special ties within existing occupations." Such predictions created a great deal of interest in occupations such as solar technician. However, limitations of solar power kept the occupation from growing as rapidly as anticipated. The unexpected oil glut of the early 1980's further dampened the growth of this occupation, at least for the time being. Industries and occupations concerned with developing alternative energy sources probably will grow over time, but it would be folly for too many young people to focus on them now when the demand is low.
A final consideration about emerging occupations is that many evolve as specialties within existing occupations. In Encounters, the authors contend that tool and die makers will become the laser technicians of the future as more metalworking is done with lasers. By recognizing that the skills of today's traditional occupations can often be applied to tomorrow's emerging fields, individuals can prepare for work in both today's and tomorrow's job market. The necessity and advantage of being adaptable to a changing job market have been recognized by many writers. In Megatrends, Naisbitt says, "We are moving from the specialist who is soon obsolete to the generalist who can adapt." And, in Education for Tomorrow's Jobs, the authors state, "Given the uncertainty regarding the skill requirements of the economy, it is essential that the education of America's young people is designed to enhance their abilities to adapt as necessary to these changing requirements."
Which views of the future will prove to be correct? Perhaps none. We will only know in the future; until then counselors and students must make the best use they can of the information available to them. As Naisbitt says in Megatrends, "Trends tell you the direction the country is moving in. The decisions are up to you."
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|Title Annotation:||economic forecasting|
|Publication:||Occupational Outlook Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1984|
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