04/19/2011 01:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2011

What Is a 21st Century Job?

According to the White House website, "President Obama will reform America's public schools to deliver a 21st century education that will prepare all children for success in the new global workplace." In addition, President Obama's "first priority" in confronting the current economic crisis is "to put Americans back to work."

The President made clear the connection between education and work in the 2011 State of the Union address where he explained that, "nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education." On another recent occasion the President declared, "If we want more good news on the jobs front then we've got to make more investments in education."

If President Obama is right about the importance of education for improving national competitiveness, you would expect teaching to be a 21st century growth industry. Yet teachers are facing lay-offs across the country and the population of students in Schools of Education is declining. In addition, teacher union and professional associations are under attack and seniority rights that protect our most experienced teachers may soon disappear.

Evidently this is really not a nation that values education, certainly not mass public education. Who would chose a career that is at best temporary and where powerpoint slides marketed by textbook and testing companies may soon replace teachers in the classroom? College graduates may soon be faced with the choice between earning a minimum wage flipping burgers at McDonald's or flipping pre-packaged slides at a "school" near you.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist at Princeton University and a New York Times columnist has warned that 21st century jobs may not be tied to higher education and improved skills at all. For example, new software has simplified legal searches and wiped out entry-level middle class jobs in the legal profession. Software has also been replacing highly skilled well-educated computer engineers who specialize in chip design.

According to Krugman, rather than expanding in recent decades, since the 1990s the type of work that supports a strong middle class has lagged behind the rest of the economy. Krugman cited studies by economists David Autor, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane who argued that computers excel at "cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules." Jobs that primarily include searching and maintaining research data bases (such as the work done by paralegals and medical and insurance personnel), information sorting (book keepers and accountants), and information delivery (teachers?) may disappear or just be de-professionalized with a parallel collapse in salary.

Krugman concluded, "the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It's no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you'll get a good job, and it's becoming less true with each passing decade."

So where should the ambitious student look for 21st Century jobs? The April 17, 2011 Education Life section of The New York Times made specific recommendations listing the top ten growth fields. Unfortunately, there are relatively few jobs available in these fields or they are low paid low skill work.

The number one field is biomedical engineering with a projected growth rate of 72 percent. The mean salary for someone with a master's degree in science or engineering is projected at $82,500. Unfortunately, they only anticipate 12,000 new slots by 2018, or about 1,500 a year. If you want a job in this field, you better start lining up now. Network and data analysts (number 2) get paid a little less (mean of $76,500), but they anticipate more jobs in the field (over 50,000), that is until they are all outsourced to India and the Philippines.

Number 5 (financial examiner 11,000 jobs) and Number 7 (physicians assistant 29,000 jobs) are also the types of jobs where the more skilled work will be quickly outsourced. That leaves medical scientist (44,000 jobs) and biochemist/biophysicist (9,000 jobs) for American Ph.D. students.

Low wage jobs are the big boom area as the baby boomer population ages. College graduates can find plenty of minimum wage work as home health aides (anticipated 461,000 jobs), as less demanding personal care attendants (anticipated 376,000 jobs), pushing skin care products to the aged (15,000 jobs), and helping them in the gym (6,000 jobs).

Maybe President Obama is right and Paul Krugman and The New York Times are wrong? If that is the case, I need him to be more specific. I would like to be able to tell my students where they can find the 21st century jobs.

If Obama and his economic team and the budget cut Republicans who control the House of representatives are wrong however, they should reread a clever little poem written by Langston Hughes called "A Dream Deferred" (1951).

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?