The Golden Era of Work: Beyond STEM

In the age of ultimate work flexibility, some of the best opportunities lie in newly created positions that may not have existed a decade ago. Third in a series.

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Two decades ago, John Hauer had no idea he'd wind up owning a 3-D printing consultancy. Or that he'd become an evangelist for the technology, lauding its benefits on national television and at the marquee Consumer Electronics Show. "I first saw 3-D printing when I was at Xerox 20 years ago and thought, ‘That's pretty cool,'" Hauer says. "Now the industry is growing 25% each year."

Hauer is part of a growing group of professionals who are capitalizing on emerging technologies and filling new jobs that, even a decade ago, didn't exist. The golden era of work, in which job flexibility and a robust labor market have created a perfect storm for opportunities, is spurring individuals to take such leaps in new areas: 3-D printing, gene editing, even launch avionics integration engineering (you can thank Elon Musk's SpaceX for that opportunity).

Fewer people enrolling in trade-oriented programs is contributing to a talent shortage.

The timing, career pros say, couldn't be better. Industries across the board are desperate for skilled workers who can adapt to this new work environment. Manufacturing companies, for example, can't find enough people to program and maintain the robots moving products on factory floors. Biotech firms are upping the ante to hire machinists and technicians to operate their wares. Even restaurants-the original gig economy employer before there even was a gig economy-are having trouble hiring waitstaff and cooks, despite some help from Bluetooth temperature sensors and order-ahead technology.

"No one knows how to run all that equipment," says Katy Caselli, an organizational psychologist in North Carolina and founder of the corporate training firm Building Giants. "There are some amazing advances happening in artificial intelligence and robotics, but they can't be made without technical training."

One of the reasons for the shortage is people are enrolling in certificate-training programs, which tend to be trade oriented, at a much lower rate than they are entering four-year programs. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 10% of undergraduates are enrolled in certificate programs.

The result: companies are starting to train from within to help the spot welder become a spot-welder operator. And individuals are seeking out new certifications and skills in this red-hot labor market to help them make a career leap in the artificial intelligence era. We spoke with career coaches and culled through the fastest-growing occupations according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics to find some of the new arenas with roles companies are hungry to fill-and how you can plan a leap of your own.

The sun shines on solar.

This one surprised us: according to the BLS, the fastest-growing occupation is solar photovoltaic installers. Despite solar energy being around for years now, workers who can assemble, install, and maintain solar panels are expected to be in high demand, with the occupation growing 105% between 2016 and 2026. The reason isn't so much about more people wanting to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions but because of legislation. California recently mandated that new homes be built with solar panels, a rule that goes into effect in 2020. Experts say more states will follow, which will only make the demand for careers in solar even more desirable.

Print it in 3-D.

3-D printing, which already has a host of industrial purposes, is expected to become a bigger part of many sectors, and could end up contributing $550 billion to the economy by 2025, according to McKinsey Global Research. In medicine, surgeons in Belfast already have completed a kidney transplant with a 3-D-printed kidney replica. In agriculture, 3-D printing is helping farmers customize their equipment, resulting in higher crop yields. "There is an amazing variety of things that can be created via a computer and some kind of polymer," Caselli says. A plus for 3-D printing is that many of the skills cross a variety of concentrations, from engineering to computer science, which could make it easier for some workers to shift into this realm, according to Hauer. "3-D printing needs fresh blood," he says. "It was a cottage industry that now has blown up."

Genes edits ramp up.

Engineering DNA has moved beyond GMOs, which have allowed everything from cotton to sugar beets to double their yields (not without controversy, of course). The latest discussion of gene modification centers on the use of CRISPR, a tool that can essentially edit DNA. Already it's being tested for use in controlling the spread of HIV and resurrecting certain species (hello, wooly mammoth hybrid). For now, CRISPR can't be tested on humans in the United States because of concerns over ethical issues, but China is allowing it to be tested as treatment for cancer patients. Still, the use of gene editing could drastically change the way industries such as big pharma, medicine, and agriculture operate. "It doesn't take six years of development to do the old way of gene splicing with a whole lot of mistakes," says Caselli, who has devised plans for biotech firms to close the skills gap. "With this, treatments can be individualized."

Math stars are winning.

As a variety of new technologies transform industries, someone has to analyze the statistical likelihood of things going right or, more importantly, wrong. Enter actuaries, mathematicians, and operations research analysts. The latter two make the BLS list for hottest jobs, expected to grow nearly 30% and 27% from 2016 to 2026, respectively. The kicker: with median annual wages of $80,000 or more, many of these math wonks earn six figures quickly.

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