Reading the Tea Leaves at the Department of Labor

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What are the emerging occupations that will offer job opportunities for young people and career changers? One way to get a clue is to look at how our government, especially the Department of Labor, classifies occupations.

You’ve probably been told since childhood that there are two kinds of elephants: African and Indian. Now it turns out, from genetic evidence, that there are actually two species of African elephants: the forest species and the savannah species. This discovery will mean changes in conservation practices.

Something similar happens among the labor economists in the U.S. government: Every so often, they change the way they classify occupations. Most of the time, they split up occupations, just as the biologists have split up elephant species. Two practical results are that we get (1) more career information and (2) indications of how our economy is changing.

Last year, the government changed the Standard Occupational Classification taxonomy, which is what organizes the occupational titles that appear in all reports generated by all branches of government (Labor Statistics, Census, Economic Analysis, and so forth). SOC 2000 was replaced with SOC 2010.

We’re able to see the specific impact on SOC 2010 on career information now that the National Center for O*NET Development, which prepares the nation’s chief occupational database, has announced its plans for how (in an interim release, next month) it will align the O*NET database with SOC 2010. Several occupational specializations have now become occupations in their own right. Some previously unrecognized occupations have been added. And these changes indicate the directions our economy is taking as the second decade of the 21st century begins.

Green energy is one field where the change is particularly visible. Solar Photovoltaic Installers and Wind Turbine Service Technicians used to be two specializations within Construction and Related Workers, All Other. Now they’re distinct occupations, for which BLS will need to collect workforce and wage statistics and make employment projections. I can’t wait to see these figures! For my books about green jobs, I had to rely on industry sources (historically susceptible to boosterism) for these figures.

The same result has happened in other fields as well. Health care, our fastest-growing industry, provides many examples. Genetic Counselors, which used to be a specialization within Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Workers, All Other, is now an occupation in its own right. Similarly, Nurse Anesthetists and Nurse Practitioners, which used to be confined within Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioners, All Other, have been promoted to full occupational status. Nurse Midwives and Hearing Aid Specialists have broken free of Health Technologists and Technicians, All Other. (Two new specializations that O*NET is adding to this catch-all occupation are Ophthalmic Medical Technologists and Surgical Assistants.) Some completely new occupational titles in this field are Exercise Physiologists, Magnetic Resonance Imaging Technologists, Ophthalmic Medical Technicians, Phlebotomists, and Community Health Workers.

These changes reflect the effort to reduce health-care costs by shifting some tasks from doctors to highly-skilled nurses and technicians.

In high technology, you can find Web Developers no longer slotted within Computer Specialists, All Other. Computer Security Specialists used to be a specialization within Network and Computer Systems Administrators but now steps out on its own under a modified title, Information Security Analysts. Some entirely new titles are Computer Network Architects, Computer Network Support Specialists, and Radio, Cellular, and Tower Equipment Installers and Repairers.

In the business world, some new faces are Funeral Service Managers, Labor Relations Specialists, Fundraisers, and Credit Counselors.

The presence in SOC 2010 of new or newly-promoted occupational titles means the government is betting that these occupations are likely to expand. Most of them involve new or upgraded skills, which means limited competition for job openings. If you are thinking about your future career or advise people who are, you should pay attention to these occupations.


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