by Megan E. Hansen, Research Director
Posted November 21, 2019 In Scholar Commentary

This article was originally posted on the Medium publication The Benchmark

Ongoing discussions about the future of work continue to center around how to prepare people better to step into the rapidly growing tech field. In a recent survey, 80 percent of companies said they will need more employees with tech skills soon. Thanks to continued growth in tech-focused areas, there’s little doubt that there will be plenty of tech jobs to go around twenty years from now. But strong growth is also expected in lots of other areas like hospitality and healthcare, creating opportunities for workers with a variety of skills.

In September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its predictions for which occupations will see the most significant job growth over the next few decades. And to be sure, software developers are among the professions with the highest levels of predicted growth. But also in the top 10 are home health aides, medical assistants, cooks and food prep workers, taxi drivers, and financial managers.

Occupations with the most projected job growth, 2018–2028

How can the next generation of workers best prepare themselves to step into these rapidly growing fields? Educating the workforce of tomorrow will require a variety of educational institutions capable of giving students the diversity of skills and knowledge needed in tomorrow’s economy. For some, investing in a four-year college degree will continue to be worthwhile, and even necessary to achieve their career goals. But for many students, vocational programs and apprenticeships may provide a more affordable and a quicker path to a career.

Four-year degrees aren’t going away
We hear a lot about four-year college becoming obsolete as students find quicker paths to employment, and as technology challenges the traditional model of delivering educational material. To be sure, education is indeed changing as a result of both technology and competition from free online courses from platforms like Coursera.

But for a lot of young people just starting out, a four-year degree is still a good bet. According to researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average rate of return for earning a bachelor’s degree in the US is about 14 percent, making it a substantial investment in 2019. Since 2000, those who held a bachelor’s degree earned about $30,000 — $35,000 more each year than their peers who graduated from high school. That’s a big difference in income that only becomes larger later on in life.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

Of course, college is expensive, and what you choose to study has a significant impact on future job opportunities. A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that those who hold a bachelor’s degree earn 84 percent more, on average than those who graduated from high school alone. It also found that those who study STEM disciplines like engineering or math tended to have the highest expected earnings. But health and business majors were close behind in terms of the highest expected salary after graduation. This makes sense given health and business are two of the fastest-growing sectors of the workforce.

A recent survey by Ziprecruiter helps shed light on what matters in choosing a major by looking at which majors college graduates most regretted choosing. Among the most common were English and foreign languages, biological and physical sciences, and education. Why did graduates regret choosing these areas of study? Low pay and job opportunity were crucial factors, but job satisfaction and the need to earn advanced degrees to become employable were also key factors.

The Most-Regretted College Majors, According to ZipRecruiter’s College Grads Survey
Source: Ziprecruiter

Ziprecruiter’s list of least-regretted majors matches up well with the most rapidly growing sectors of the economy, suggesting pay and job opportunities are attracting more students to study STEM majors. The least regretted majors included computer science, business, engineering, and health administration. And while these majors do tend to have more job opportunities, a not-insignificant portion of graduates still ended up regretting their choice of what to study for reasons unrelated to pay. For example, over 12 percent of computer science and math majors regretted their decision of major because the field ended up being too stressful.

The Least-Regretted College Majors, According to ZipRecruiter’s College Grads Survey
Source: Ziprecruiter

While pay is a factor, we also know that for today’s new generation of workers, it’s not all about the benjamins. People are increasingly looking for careers in which they can find meaning, not just money. 9 out of 10 workers say they would be willing to give up 23 percent of their lifetime earnings for a job they found meaningful.

A four-year degree isn’t the only option
While the returns to college remain high, especially for specific fields of study, a four-year degree is by no means the best option for every student. For those who want to get started right away in the growing tech field, 12-week coding programs are popping up all over the country. Just like for any field, employment outcomes vary depending on the program. But for most coding Bootcamp grads, the return on investment seems to be high. Course Report found that 80 percent of Bootcamp graduates in 2018 found full-time employment in a related field with a median salary increase of almost 50 percent. With an average salary of $64,528 for coding Bootcamp graduates, that translates into a salary increase of $21,000 compared to what graduates were making before.

Coding Bootcamps are also expanding opportunities for women and low-income students to become competitive in the tech field. Course Report found that 34 percent of tech Bootcamp students are women, compared to only 19 percent of undergraduate students in four-year computer science degrees. Likewise, low-income students see a 128 percent increase in expected salary after participating in a coding Bootcamp. The quick time horizon and lower tuition may make these programs more accessible to many individuals who have traditionally been shut out of tech jobs.

Vocational training programs are also expanding educational opportunities well beyond the tech field. An increasing number of young people are choosing to pursue professional training to quickly gain skills that will make them employable in fields that vary from electricians and welders to dental and nursing assistants and pharmacy technicians.

Most vocational programs take less time to complete and cost less than a bachelor’s degree. They also lead to good salaries in fields with high expected job growth. For example, a heating and air conditioning technician can expect to earn a median salary of over $47,000 per year, with 15 percent job growth through 2026. Many of these trades also happen to be occupations that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will be among the fastest-growing in America, including electricians and healthcare assistants.

The return on investment for these vocational programs tends to be high, especially in the short run. Georgetown’s recent study ranks 4,500 colleges and universities by return on investment. It finds that community colleges and certificate programs have higher returns in the short run than bachelor’s degrees. In the long term, however, the returns to four-year degrees do end up being higher. But for young people who want to start working sooner and who don’t want to take on the burden of student loan debt that often comes with a four-year degree, vocational programs might be a better option.

Which career path should young people choose?
Despite the doom and gloom, current trends suggest that the future is bright for young workers.

The service sector will continue to grow, both in tech-related fields and across the entire economy. In preparing workers to step into these growing occupations, education will continue to be necessary. While many students will find success with a traditional four-year degree, others will choose to invest in themselves by attending a trade school and learning a vocation. Others still will take advantage of apprenticeships or online training programs to help them create careers that are a good fit for their innate abilities and interests.

Just as in the past, young people asking themselves what they should be when they grow up are going to have a hard time finding the answer. Like the rest of us, they will have to discover the career path that works best for them, often through trial and error. On the bright side, the workers of the future are likely to have more educational options than ever to help them find their way.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.