James Besaw found an easy, if somewhat simplified, answer to a question about where future career opportunities will be found.
''Electronics, electronics, electronics,'' he repeated. Mr. Besaw is director of career planning and placement at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), a two-year community college in Traverse City, Mich. In the 1950s and 1960s, NMC was mainly a liberal arts school designed to prepare students to transfer to a four-year college or university. It also had a two- and three-year nursing curriculum.
Today, liberal arts and nursing are still there; but so are programs in computer design and maintenance, robotics, shipping and marine technology, and energy exploration and development. The energy program includes courses on geology, evaluation of oil and gas prospects, drilling techniques, and solar energy.
After they graduate, the students can either go on to a university or - as many of them are doing - enter the job market.
While NMC's course catalog is more complicated than it used to be, so is the business of choosing a career. The job market is changing so rapidly that young people trying to decide on a career not only have many new areas to choose from; they may find themselves preparing for jobs no one is doing yet.
''I often tell high school students that the job you're going to do the rest of your life may not exist today,'' says Frank Burtnett, associate executive of the American Personnel and Guidance Association, whose members include guidance counselors in elementary and secondary schools.
The explosion of technology has created openings - often shortages - for electronics engineers to develop faster and more powerful computers, telecommunications technicians, computer-assisted-design (CAD) engineers, bioengineering scientists to help develop more productive crops, synthetic fuel researchers and workers, and computer programers.
''It's only a matter of time before each of us has a computer (in the office) or in the home, or both,'' predicts Judith Kayser, manager of statistical and information services at the College Placement Council.
But one of the most serious obstacles to the arrival of that day is the lack of teachers in these technical fields; potential teachers can be easily lured away from academia with salaries several times what the colleges can afford to pay.
''There's no advantage to staying in school and getting a doctorate to teach, '' said Audrey Freedman, a labor economist at the Conference Board, ''when you can make a great deal more by leaving school after you get your bachelor's degree and going into industry.'' She expects that as industry begins to help colleges fund teaching positions, more jobs will open up in this field as well.
At the same time, the ''baby boom'' bulge, now in its 20s and 30s, has opened up or expanded a variety of new career possibilities. As this generation increases its income, it wants to do more with its money than let it sit in a bank. So the financial services industry, including brokerage houses, mutual funds, insurance companies, accounting firms, financial planners, and even banks will need more people who can help others make the most of their money. As the baby boom generation ages, the medical-services professions will undergo a similar expansion.
But for many of the people going through this spring's graduation rituals, all these future possibilities are not much comfort. The current recession and high unemployment has put a crimp in the hiring plans of many businesses. Fewer recruiters have been visiting campuses, and students who might have had more than half a dozen job offers a few years ago may have only one this year.
''We've seen a decrease in everything except salaries,'' says Richard Stewart , director of placement services at Purdue University. ''The number of employers visiting campus is down, the number of offers are down, and the number of placements are down. But salaries have been going up. It seems that if a company wants somebody badly, they're willing to pay top dollar.
''The recession has also had an effect on the way young people choose their careers, an effect that Camille Smith, a career expert at Michigan State University doesn't like.
''The recession has definitely had an effect,'' she said. ''Instead of zeroing in on a general career field, students want to be led to the job market and shown where there's a job for them now.'' The result, Dr. Smith adds, is often chaos. ''The job they wanted isn't there when they graduate, or when they get a job, they don't like what they're doing. So they have to go back to school and learn to do something else.''
''Recessions tend to make people choose more specific careers where they have a salable skill,'' agrees Lynn E. Browne, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The problem with this is that what is a salable skill when a person enters school may be glutted at graduation.
On the other hand, the experts point out, if a certain career is what a person really wants to do, they should not be discouraged because there is no curent market for it. As recently as four years ago, for instance, some career specialists were writing that computers were a mature industry and had no room for expansion. But the boom in CAD systems, robotics, personal computers, and office computer systems had not been forseen. As a result of these and other recent developments in computers, this field appears wide open again.
Another field where job prospects change periodically is energy. An oil glut not only lowers the price of gasoline, it also helps cut the demand for people to find more of the stuff.
For instance, Exxon Company, USA, the domestic subsidiary of Exxon Corporation, expects no strong demand for technical people, like chemical, mechanical, or electrical engineers expected for the next two years, according to R. F. Tickner, recruitment and placement coordinator. ''In the long range,'' however, the demand for these jobs is expected to increase, he says.
A key to avoiding the problem of changes in the job market, Dr. Smith and other experts agree, is flexibility. ''I encourage students to find out what their skills are and to stick to areas related to those skills,'' she says.
These ideas are particularly important to the thousands of high school students who do not plan to go to college but, like generations of students before them, expect to immediately enter the job market, perhaps at the local factory. In the next several years, many of those local factories will be adding more robots to do mundane welding, automatic inspection lines with TV cameras, and computerized warehouses that can be serviced by one person and a remote-control loading machine. As a result, the growth in production line jobs in factories is expected to slow, not only displacing many current workers but closing the door to people looking for their first full-time job.
To high school students facing these bleak prospects, Dr. Burtnett of the Personnel and Guidance Association recommends a strategy based on learning about as many occupations as possible.
''How many students really know what their fathers do?'' he asks. They may know where their father works and his job title, but they do not know what he actually does at work, Burtnett said. He recommends that students find out and that their fathers help them. If possible, they should take their children to work and discuss the company and explain some of the jobs there. Students should also investigate the jobs of relatives, neighbors, and other adults they know, if they can.
The lack of opportunities in manufacturing will, career experts feel, be at least partly offset by a rise in service jobs. ''I not only see computers coming in here,'' an executuve at one company said. ''But I also see a lot of people coming in and out to install and maintain them.
''Although most career experts see the greatest growth of future career possibilities in technical, service, and health-care fields, there is also an awareness that students should not forsake all liberal arts courses for computers and laboratories. Recent hiring by corporations
A survey of more than 200 firms found that hiring was down or unchanged for liberal arts and math graduates with BA degrees, but up in engineering, accounting and computer science.
1981 1982(est.) Engineering 7,394 8,922 Accounting 6,345 6,883 Sales-Marketing 2,223 2,245 Business administration 1,699 1,823 Liberal arts 506 509 Chemistry 329 451 Mathematics-statistics 340 277 Economics-finance 581 651 Computer Science 1,820 2,138 Other fields 1,372 1,175 Total 22,609 25,074 Source: Northwestern University Placement Center Note: Overall 1982 figures could be 5 to 15 percent lower than estimated here.