12/22/2011 09:00 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2012

The Best Overall Jobs Of The Century

The most rewarding jobs in the coming years will focus on high tech, health care, and business efficiency. That's the forecast of "Best Jobs for the 21st Century" [JIST Publishing, $19.95], based on the salary data and employment projections of the U.S. Department of Labor.

To understand what makes some occupations promising, you need to consider the most important forces that are undermining many other jobs: automation and globalization. Thousands of manufacturing jobs have been taken over by robots, and thousands more have been shipped to low-wage countries. For example, many clerical workers have been displaced by productivity software and by automated phone messages. Computer programs and overseas workers can run credit checks or help someone troubleshoot a technical problem with a product.

But some jobs can't be done by computers or overseas workers, and they will continue to employ large numbers of Americans. Some of these jobs require that a person be at the site where the work gets done. For example, most construction work other than prefabrication of building components has to be done at the site where the structure will stand. Other occupations that will continue to provide many jobs use workers who can't be replaced by a machine because the work demands uniquely human abilities, such as high-level decision-making, creativity, or interpersonal skills. Designers, clergy, therapists, and athletic coaches are examples of these workers who have no fear of automation.

An occupation gains security if it requires both on-site work and the human touch, and most promising of all are the jobs that possess these attributes and also are seeing increased demand for other reasons. Many health-care jobs fit this description, now that the population is getting older and health-care insurance coverage is expanding. Many occupations in information technology and business also offer this magic combination--at least, the ones that require a lot of collaborative work, maximizing the value of human interaction and minimizing the advantages of using offshore workers.

On the other hand, job security is not worth much if the job offers few other rewards. Many of the occupations that will offer numerous job openings are low-paying service roles such as home health care aide, landscaping worker, and delivery van driver. The skills that these jobs require are uniquely human, but they are low-level skills and cannot command a good salary.

Therefore, the best jobs for the 21st century--the high-growth, high-paying, job-creating occupations--will be in services that require some combination of creativity, sophisticated decision making, interpersonal sensitivity, and adaptability to a changing environment. This last factor, adaptability, means the ability to learn new skills and the flexibility to change work roles and possibly employers as opportunities emerge. It also means that a college degree, while serving as the entry ticket to one of these highly rewarding jobs, does not free the worker from the need for additional education or training. Continuing education is a legal requirement for many of these jobs and a practical necessity for the others.

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