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10 surprises about tomorrow's job market

In sharp contrast to today's tepid job growth, employment will pick up later this decade and feature some unusual twists – from the rise of sales jobs to the dearth of 'green' ones. Here's a guide to help navigate it.

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Part of this is a fluke of the business cycle. Because of the Great Recession, which walloped the construction industry, jobs in various building trades will have to surge just to get back to normal levels of employment. But there's more involved in the process than that.

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The main reason the low and high ends of the job market are growing is that the middle is getting squeezed. Different explanations are put forward for this: government policy, the decline of unions, offshoring jobs. But the prevailing theory is that middle-skill positions are disappearing because of technology.

The process has been going on for 30 years, but it has been largely obscured because it happens in fits and starts. The theory, as propounded by David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, is that the rapid spread of low-cost computing power has replaced many "routine" jobs. These workers accomplish a set of specific activities by following defined procedures, which a computerized device can mimic. Think automated teller machines instead of bank tellers, robots instead of factory workers, computerized answering systems instead of customer service representatives.

But computers aren't good at handling nonroutine jobs, whether it's managing a work group or cleaning up a mess in an elementary school. So they don't eliminate jobs at the top end of the skill spectrum, such as research scientists and managers. They also don't replace low-skill nonroutine occupations, like janitors.

"This process is going to gain more and more steam," says Nir Jaimovich, an economist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. His research shows that almost all the loss of these routine jobs happens during recessions – and they never come back during the recovery. So the Great Recession has hit the reset button on these occupations. In 1981, routine positions accounted for 58 percent of all jobs; by 2011, they were down to 44 percent.

Yet other surprises await future job hunters as well. As the nation struggles to crawl out of recession, here are 10 things you may want to know as part of an unofficial guide to tomorrow's job market:

1. Some booms really are booms.

The US oil and gas industry is likely to continue to be a source of jobs – and flush paychecks – for the foreseeable future.

Deployment of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" technology in places like North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas has reversed the nation's long decline in oil and gas production. Fluctuating energy prices could take the bloom off the drill bit at some point. Some places, like Towanda, Pa., have already seen many drillers move on to more valuable gas fields, leaving empty cafe booths in their wake.

But overall, experts believe the boom will continue for many years despite the vicissitudes of the global energy market and environmental concerns about fracking.

By 2020, development of so-called unconventional sources of petroleum should yield 4.5 million barrels per day, more than twice today's output, forecasts IHS Global Insight. That translates into a hiring of nearly 1.3 million workers over that time, the consulting firm estimates.


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