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Do You Really Want to Pick That Major? A New Study Predicts Future Most-Wanted Jobs

If you’re an occupational therapist, podiatrist, or audiologist, getting a job in the next decade will be simplicity itself. You’ll have a much harder time, though, if you’re a movie projectionist, typist, food prep worker, or dancer.

That’s according to a study released today by the Conference Board, covering 464 occupations in the U.S. that range from sewage plant workers (in demand) to judicial law clerks (not in demand). It covers the period from 2012 to 2022. Reading the whole report will cost you $395 if you aren’t a Conference Board member.

The most surprising finding of the study is that STEM occupations—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—don’t top the list of jobs that will face labor shortages, despite the drumbeat of warnings that the U.S. isn’t producing enough STEM grads. “Many of these fields rank surprisingly average in a national context” in terms of labor-shortage risk, said the report summary.

There are several reasons STEM doesn’t top the list of concerns. A relatively small portion of today’s STEM workers are aging baby boomers, so there won’t be a wave of retirements in the next decade or so. STEM jobs tend to attract immigrants, who relieve the labor bottleneck. And advances in technology keep increasing the productivity of STEM workers, so more work can be done by the same number of people, the study summary said.

There’s more concern about shortages in health-related occupations because the aging of the population will simultaneously increase the need for medical workers and decrease their supply as people retire. “Among doctors, optometrists and podiatrists are the specialists most at risk of shortage, with the general physicians and surgeons category not far behind,” the summary said.

Skilled blue-collar jobs may be hard to fill as well—not because of increased demand but because of “a rapidly shrinking supply of young people entering these fields as increasing numbers retire.” The occupations include water and waste-water treatment plant and system operators, crane and tower operators, transportation inspectors, and construction and building inspectors.

The coming years will be good for workers and not so good for employers, predicted the Conference Board, a business-supported research organization. It will be “significantly harder to control labor costs without losing labor quality,” said Gad Levanon, co-author of the report and director of macroeconomic research for the Conference Board, in a statement.

The study, called “From Not Enough Jobs to Not Enough Workers,” says that unemployment has already fallen below what the Conference Board believes is its “natural” rate in Canada, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. The natural rate is the lowest level that joblessness can reach before labor markets get too tight and spark inflationary wage increases. There’s no agreement among economists as to what the natural rate is, although policymakers at the Federal Reserve estimate it as ranging from 5 percent to 6 percent in the U.S. The unemployment rate in the U.S. in July was 6.2 percent.

The Conference Board forecasts that unemployment will fall below its natural rate in the United States and the United Kingdom over the next year, with the rest of Europe following later.

A “labor shortage,” as the Conference Board defines it, doesn’t necessarily mean that a job will go unfilled. “It’s not like [gross domestic product] will stall to a halt,” Levanon said last week in an interview before the report’s release, but “GDP would grow faster if there was no labor force constraint.”