Which Career Paths Lead to the Best Opportunities? A Data-Driven Answer

The Great Recession officially ended in 2009 but 55% of Americans don’t think the economy has recovered, according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll. With stagnating income, a shrinking middle class and a widespread lack of well-paying jobs, it’s no surprise many people still feel this way.

Recently, the Indeed Hiring Lab analyzed Indeed and other global data sets to map out the career pathways that are leading away from the global wage crisis and disappearing middle. As part of our research we identified the “opportunity jobs” which have shown strong wage growth and competitive salaries in the past 10 years.

By setting thresholds of an average 2014 salary of at least $57,700, and salary growth greater than 25.3% from 2004 to 2014, we discovered that the public’s overall skepticism of the economy and job market may not be misplaced. In fact, opportunity jobs account for only 16% of total employment.

But what exactly are the jobs defying the wage crisis? Let’s take a closer look at the data.

What are the occupations with the most opportunity jobs?

Technology roles — software architects, Java developers and database administrators to name a few — regularly dominate listings of the highest paid jobs. As a result, it often seems that the future only belongs to people with advanced programming skills. But the good news is the tech sector doesn’t have a monopoly on opportunity jobs — so pursuing a career as a software developer isn’t the only way to beat wage stagnation.

Occupational categories ranked by quantity of opportunity job postings

In fact, as the list above shows, there are plenty of desirable roles for people with varying backgrounds in sales, accounting, healthcare and business management.

Even so, high-paying jobs generally require education beyond a high school diploma, and those on this list are no different as most require a four-year degree. However, while opportunity jobs are harder to find for people who don’t have a college degree, these roles do exist — in fact, registered nurses, which tops our overall opportunities list by quantity of available jobs, doesn’t require a degree (although it does require additional training).

Opportunity jobs have other key similarities:

Long term viability. Only 8.8% of opportunity jobs are in professions identified as being at high risk of automation in the influential Future of Employment report from Oxford University and Deloitte. These occupations, which require high levels of social intelligence, creativity, perception and manipulation are less likely to be automated. Thus, people looking for jobs that offer stability should focus not only on developing computer literacy but also on fostering these “soft skills” to improve their chances of landing an opportunity role.

Transferable skills. Opportunity jobs have another advantage: They require skills that apply across multiple industries. That way, workers can more readily shift to a different industry should theirs experience a downturn. Opportunity jobs such as sales manager and network administrator, for instance, have skills that are useful in multiple business sectors, from manufacturing to healthcare to retail.

Supply/demand gap favors job seekers. The supply/demand gap for opportunity jobs often favors the job seeker since employers have a tougher time filling high-skill, high-paying roles as the pool of qualified candidates is smaller. Registered nurses, for instance, are high demand but also in short supply. This is a trend likely to continue into the future as the population grows older and demand for professionals in the caring professions continues to rise. In fact, the BLS predicts there will be a shortage of over 1 million registered nurses by 2022.

Opportunity jobs are concentrated in five categories

Clearly, then, there are viable alternatives to wage-declining professions. But there is a downside: These opportunities aren’t evenly dispersed across occupations. In fact, 92% of opportunity jobs are concentrated in just five occupational categories. 

Opportunity jobs ranked by quantity of job postings on Indeed

The concentration of qualifying job postings varies within each category. Not every job meets the criteria of an “opportunity,” even if the odds are pretty good. For example, more than 80% of computer and mathematical, and roughly two-thirds of business and financial operations roles are well-paying “stagnation-busters.”

But even so, simply pursuing a career in tech or banking does not guarantee job seekers an abundance of high-paying opportunities. What you do within a segment can make all the difference.

Meanwhile, no occupation category outside the top five has a concentration of opportunity jobs that totals more than 50%. Thus people working in other fields — including education, law and social science — will have a much harder time finding a role that pays well and which beats inflation.

Improving access to opportunity matters to employers too

Opportunity jobs offer a lot — but they also ask for a lot, such as a four-year college degree or a specialized certification. Of course, post-secondary education requires a large investment of time and money, so these extra demands represent obstacles for those who lack such resources.

Meanwhile, since many of the best opportunities are limited to a handful of occupation categories people whose skills and interests lie elsewhere face a stark choice between finding well-paid work or pursuing a passion. Of course, business is business and employers may ask why it matters, so long as they can fill their open roles?

The truth is that restricting access to opportunity to a fortunate few is bad for business. If much of the population is trapped in low-skill, low-paid work, their purchasing power is limited and as a result there is less demand for the goods and services that employers create.

Thus finding a pathway out of wage stagnation shouldn’t just be left to the job seeker — employers have a role to play in improving access to opportunity too.  

For more insights into the challenges faced by job seekers and employers in today’s labor market, download the latest report from the Indeed Hiring Lab: The State of Opportunity in 2016: Overcoming the Wage Crisis in Today’s Labor Market.

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