On a gloomy afternoon earlier this month, a group of Harvard students took a break from crafting final papers to peer into the future. Surveying a shattered employment landscape, they summoned the optimism to regard looming obstacles as opportunities for scenic detours. "There are definitely downsides to it being harder to get a job," says Alex Lavoie, a 21-year-old junior from Avon, Conn. "But it's forced people to look harder at what they really want to do instead of following a standardized path."
During the fat years, that path led many of America's élites to Wall Street. These days, that's a less appealing destination. In 2008 the financial sector, which had ballooned over the past three decades, contracted for the first time in 16 years. "The glamour is gone," says Bridget Beckeman, 20, a junior from Westford, Mass., who will intern at an investment bank this summer. But it hasn't disappeared. Financial centers like Charlotte, N.C., will flourish anew; driven largely by a banking boom, the city's workforce has grown 50% over the past decade, according to John Connaughton, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. (See which businesses are bucking the recession.)
The fall of finance has its upside. Top grads will tack toward a variety of potentially lucrative positions that prize technological savvy and analytical aptitude. According to consulting giant McKinsey & Co., nearly 85% of new jobs created between 1998 and 2006 involved complex "knowledge work" like problem-solving and concocting corporate strategy. Job opportunities in mathematics and across the sciences are also expected to expand. The U.S. Department of Labor spotlights network systems and data communications as well as computer-software engineering among the occupations projected to grow most explosively by 2016. Over the next seven years, the number of jobs in the information-technology sector is expected to swell 24% a figure more than twice the overall job-growth rate.
There will be some limits to that growth. "This place is going to get more and more high-end talent and less and less commodity-type folks," says Mark Dinan, a Silicon Valley recruiter. "The real question is, What's the next big thing, and what's going to be the big moneymaker?" Cloud computing? Nanotechnology? Genomics? The answer will come from the companies that entrepreneurs can create and destroy more easily than ever before, because the cost of start-ups is dropping rapidly. Richard Freeman, director of the labor studies program at the National Bureau of Economic Research, says that "these really sharp, aggressive, Harvard-type students doing entrepreneurship, forming new businesses ... would be the best thing that could happen to this economy."
Where else could your next job come from? Health care and education, the labor market's traditional bulwarks in lean times, show no signs of abating. An aging population will open up opportunities too. "Construction of senior communities, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes ... these things are all going to have to expand tremendously," says Connaughton. The key to finding the jobs of the future will be knowing where to look.
With reporting by Steve Goldberg / Charlotte and Matt Villano / San Francisco