15 middle-class jobs that can’t be automated—a CBR thought experiment

Credit: Michael Byers

Howard R. Gold | Sep 27, 2017

Sections Public Policy

When it comes to growth, economists say we need to train people for the modern workforce. Yet in the United States, many people don’t have the skills they need to qualify for a good job, where they would earn a salary that would enable them to buy a home and a car, and go on vacations—let alone invest in the future and help grow the economy.

If we are training people for the workforce, in what areas should we train them? Economists are not generally in the habit of, nor do they feel comfortable, identifying winning and losing economic sectors. As a thought exercise, Chicago Booth Review pored over employment data and reviewed the findings of leading academics and other experts in government and top consulting firms to determine where middle-class jobs will come from in the future. We identified 15 well-paying jobs that we think are likely to grow the most between now and 2024, with the fastest-growing (by percentage) at the top of the list:

How did we compile this? For starters, we chose job categories that employed at least 90,000 people as of 2014 and that paid from $42,000 to $125,000 a year. (That’s how the Pew Research Center defines “middle-income,” or two-thirds to double the median US household income, for a family of three.) But in drawing this up, we were swayed by the importance of three things in particular: technology, education, and training.

Technology: Some jobs can’t be replaced

A much-publicized 2013 study by Oxford University researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne estimates that “about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk” from advances in computerization, particularly machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Using US Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Frey and Osborne rated 702 occupations on a scale of 0 to 100 percent for risk of displacement by emerging computer technologies. Workers in heavily blue-collar industries such as production, construction, transportation, maintenance and repair, and farming and fisheries face the highest risk, along with white-collar employees in service and sales.

The job categories at lowest risk, according to Frey and Osborne: management; computer, engineering, and science; education, legal, arts, and media; and, of course, health care. The latter accounted for half of the 20 occupations to which Frey and Osborne give the lowest probability of replacement by computerization.

Core skills such as “originality,” “social perceptiveness,” “assisting and caring for others,” “persuasion,” and ”negotiation” are the most difficult for computers to replicate, Frey and Osborne determine. (For more, see “If robots take our jobs, will they make it up to us?” July 2017.)

Education: Invest in technical skills

A report published in June 2016 by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) demonstrates how education has become the line of demarcation between the haves and have nots in the US. All but 100,000 of the 11.6 million jobs created in the US since the Great Recession went to people who had at least some college education, and 8.4 million (more than 70 percent) went to workers who had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, the report finds. Only 80,000, less than 1 percent, were taken by workers with high-school degrees or less, as managerial and professional occupations grabbed the lion’s share of new jobs. By 2020, 65 percent of all US jobs will require postsecondary education and training, the CEW says.

These data appear to support the long-held views of Chicago Booth’s Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel, who, along with Chinhui Juhn of the University of Houston, have examined long-term labor trends and find that changes in technology, trade, and international competition have hurt low-skilled workers’ earning power but helped those with more skills and education.

Even Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, notes the critical role of education and training in exacerbating—and perhaps eventually mitigating—income inequality in the US. “Over the long run, education and technology are the decisive determinants of wage levels,” he writes. “The best way to increase wages and reduce wage inequalities in the long run is to invest in education and skill.”

“A modern economy is a combination of STEM, health care, business services, finance, and information,” says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the CEW. “The path of least resistance [to getting a good middle-class job] is STEM, business services, health care. In some of these cases, you have to go to grad school. In STEM, that’s where the big-earning jobs are. The rewards for a technical skill are very high.”

Training: Field of study matters

Although a college degree, and even postgraduate studies, may be required in some highly technical fields, Carnevale says post-high-school professional certification—in, say, plumbing or HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) maintenance and repair—could offer good opportunities for blue-collar workers, who a generation ago could go right from their high-school graduation to the GM or Ford factory floor. “Technical certificates—mostly to men—are where the money is,” he says. Electricians, remember, are projected by BLS to be one of the fastest-growing middle-class jobs in the years ahead.

MIT’s David Autor, a leading authority on labor markets, points out that what people study may be as important as, if not more important than, how much education they have. Occupations such as medical paraprofessionals and skilled trades and repair people “require a high-school degree, but that’s a foundational credential that allows you to specialize,” he says. “With a high-school degree, you can get further postsecondary training.”

“There’s been a push for college for all. The truth is, the majority of the US workforce won’t have college degrees,” Autor says. Even sidestepping the cost of college, there are no guarantees for college graduates. Says Autor, the degrees that future graduates earn have“to be in disciplines that have market value.”

It’s worth repeating that our list is far from definitive—consider it fodder and context for discussion, and please weigh in. For more thoughts on job creation, see “How to create middle-class jobs,” Fall 2017.