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How the Future will work

Baby boomers, the generation that brought America cable television, middle-class pot smoking, and the two-car garage, are now bringing the nation the jobs of the future.

Bricklayer Ray Bello works on the side of the New College House on 34th and Chestnut Streets on July 10, 2015. ( BEN MIKESELL / Staff Photographer )
Bricklayer Ray Bello works on the side of the New College House on 34th and Chestnut Streets on July 10, 2015. ( BEN MIKESELL / Staff Photographer )Read more

First in an occasional series.

Baby boomers, the generation that brought America cable television, middle-class pot smoking, and the two-car garage, are now bringing the nation the jobs of the future.

The boomers, as they grow older and more infirm, will need home health aides, personal care aides, registered nurses, and physical therapists - jobs that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says will be among the fastest growing in the next seven years.

"It's about . . . these aging baby boomers," among other trends, said labor economist Paul Harrington, director of Drexel University's Center for Labor Markets and Policy.

Every two years, the bureau issues a report on the nation's fastest growing occupations, with the latest projecting job growth to 2022. The next, projecting jobs to 2024, is expected in December.

While many of the fastest-growing jobs reflect the sheer demographic heft of the baby boomers, others point to a world that boomers never would have imagined at the start of their careers in the 1960s and 1970s.

Boomers were still using manual typewriters then.

By 2022, the bureau expects businesses to need nearly 140,000 more software and application developers - jobs that did not exist.

The world has grown smaller, demanding more translators as people move more freely across the globe, and more genetic counselors, as scientists gain deeper knowledge of the body's most intimate characteristics.

As government reports go, the bureau's projections make for interesting reading and some speculation - trying to figure out why, for example, diagnostic medical sonographer, insulation worker, and industrial and organizational psychologist are among the fastest-growing occupations.

Evidence of the popularity of organizational psychology came in April when more than 4,300 practitioners, academics and graduate students attended the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology's annual conference, in Philadelphia. Attendance has been growing.

"Right now, the topic of leadership development and executive coaching is hot," said Randy Cheloha, an industrial and organizational psychologist with a private consulting practice in Wynnewood.

More employers are using these practitioners to devise assessments, evaluate leaders and build workplace cultures, said the group's incoming president, James Outtz.

Here are some of the highlights of the BLS' most recent report:

By 2022, America should expect to see all occupations grow by 15.6 million jobs to 161 million, a 10.8 percent change from 145 million in 2012.

Fast growth doesn't mean large growth. The fastest-growing occupation is industrial-organizational psychologist, rising 53.4 percent. Yet, the next seven years will see only 900 added jobs, increasing the ranks of workplace psychologists to 2,500. The same pattern holds true for genetic counselors and segmental pavers, as those who pave sidewalks are called - big percentage growth, low job numbers.

Health-care jobs will count for 16 of the 30 fastest-growing jobs nationally.

More registered nurses will be required in Pennsylvania than any other occupation. "People are always going to need someone to take care of them," said Gwen Blake, a nurse at Hahnemann University Hospital.

Two of the fastest-growing jobs - home health aide and personal care aide - account for a projected growth of a million jobs, yet neither pays much more than the 2012 poverty wage for a family of three, $19,090 a year. Personal care aides earn $19,910, home health aides $20,820.

Only five of the 30 fastest-growing jobs had 2012 median wage of more than $80,000, with the physician assistant earning the most, at $90,930. The four others are nurse practitioner, information security analyst, industrial psychologist, and postsecondary health specialty teachers.

Five of the fastest-growing jobs are in construction, with bricklayer being the highest paid at $46,440. That trade is projected to grow 35.5 percent. By number, construction laborers and carpenters are predicted to add 478,000 jobs.

How do the Bureau's forecasts stack up?

The government is notoriously bad at predictions involving specific jobs, said Rutgers University professor Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development.

"It's a general direction," Van Horn said. But, he said, the projections can be off in major ways.

For example, Van Horn and his Rutgers colleague Cliff Zukin compared the 1998 projections for 2008 with the reality.

In the boom times of 1998, the BLS projected a need for 551,000 general managers and top executives. As the recession worsened in 2008, 1.16 million general managers lost their jobs.

The profession of truck driving was expected to grow by 493,000 jobs, but when the economy slowed, trucks stayed parked and the number of drivers fell by 187,000.

In the past, "the U.S. economy was less affected by the global economy," Van Horn said, But now, the interplay of global economics impacts the distribution of work around the world.

Technology is also an unknown factor. "There was no Facebook 10 years ago," he said. "Did anyone project Facebook? No one can predict this kind of change."

Even trends that seem rock solid have a way of crumbling as time passes, Van Horn said.

For example, he said, government prognosticators had forecast a huge demand for teachers based on two trends: aging teachers en route to retirement and a move to smaller classes.

Instead, with the recession, "teachers decided to work longer and state budgets were challenged, so class sizes increased, and fewer teachers were needed."

Harrington, the Drexel labor economist, said that despite the projections' flaws, he's a "big believer in these forecasts."

"They have a lot of good uses," he said. "The people who make the forecasts understand exactly what they are good for and why they are good," he said, "but almost everybody who uses them misuses them."

A misuse, Harrington said, would be trying to calculate a career path based on the numbers. A proper use would be including the data in an analysis of general economic trends and growth in the U.S.

Part of the problem, he said, is that the BLS predicts the future based on current trends.

Earlier predictions were made as the economy was expanding. Then the housing crisis hit and Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, sending shock waves through the economy.

"We lost 8 or 9 million jobs in 18 months - maybe 12 months," Harrington said. "No one saw that coming."

The most recent projections, published in 2010 and 2012, were based on research at or near the lowest points in the job market

"They were making a forecast in a very down time," Harrington said. So, what looks like tremendous growth, he said, is actually all recovery, on the way up to previous employment levels.

"The BLS isn't trying to project jobs per se," Harrington said. "What they are trying to do [is answer] what's the productive potential of the American economy 10 years from now. And in that, what is the likely structure of employment across occupations."