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Economics Professor Jadrian Wooten Explains Best Majors For Future Job Market

Penn State is full of intelligent professors who can help students make sense of the challenges they’ll likely face in the near future. One such challenge is preparing for the increased role that automation will play in the work force in the decades to come.

There’s no consensus about the number of jobs that will be lost through the process of “creative destruction.” An Oxford study in 2013 estimated that 47 percent of US jobs were at a high risk for automation during the next few decades. And PwC estimates that more than 58 million US jobs will be gone by 2030 due to automation.

In any case, there is a consensus that computers will increasingly take control of jobs comprised of routine tasks, similar to how robots have been replacing humans in manufacturing for decades.

Dr. Jadrian Wooten is a economics professor at Penn State with a focus in microeconomics, including labor economics. While obtaining his Ph.D., Wooten’s primary research centered around labor issues in sports.

Wooten noted nursing, biobehavioral health, and education as potentially safe job sectors for the changing labor market, because there is a steady demand for all three and their responsibilities are hard to replace.

Healthcare is already the largest labor sector in the US economy and continues to grow consistently, which will make for many opportunities for students. Likewise, Wooten believes there will always be a need for the one-on-one component of teaching that increasingly intelligent computers won’t be able to replace any time soon. Despite past fears that education would become increasingly accessed online, the public has shown a willingness to continue paying for in-person interaction and learning experiences.

“One of the arguments is that as you start to switch towards automation, routine tasks are automated, Wooten said. “You need a job that is not programmable.”

Computer science majors and electrical engineers can also take a sigh of relief. Wooten predicts high demand for programming skills and the ability to actually build the robots that will eventually take everyone else’s jobs. In fact, as more and more is automated in the world around us, the programming and engineering of computers will become more important as the strain on resources increases.

Despite what high school guidance counselors might try to tell you, Wooten said majors like English or history are also increasingly safe choices heading into the future. Many students in these fields go into education or sales after graduation anyway, so their prospects are likely to remain largely unchanged. Even though these humanities majors don’t necessarily have specific outcomes, they allow them to go into the “right fields.”

If you like dealing with money, though, Wooten doesn’t think your outlook is as rosy.

“I think what you’re going to see is that of economics, finance, and accounting, the jobs that will survive in the future are those involved in sales or some kind of direct work with people,” he said. “If you’re just trying to find the right combination of stocks to put in a mutual fund, a computer could do that.”

Wooten says that he’s surprised human resources jobs haven’t become more fully automated than they already are. He explained that the human component of human resources is likely to live on — think interviewing candidates — but that computer programs could scan through resumes, for example. Sorry, LER majors.

Ultimately, the question boils down to whether Penn State students should be terrified about the possibility of computers wiping out so many jobs that the labor force is left unemployed and bored.

“Terrified? No. The timing of when you enter the labor force is so crucial,” Wooten said. “Imagine you graduate with a bachelor’s degree in accounting right before TurboTax is opening and H&R Block is coming around. You’d probably go work for a small local accounting firm, but you’re starting your career at the end of small accounting.”

Accountants in this position are essentially entering the labor force at the end of the wrong era — similar CD manufacturer sales rep who began working just after the iPod was rolled out in 2001. Wooten believes that students should think critically about the sectors of the economy that they’d like to join given their futures.

Dr. Wooten’s advice to a generic student at Penn State would include taking a business writing course (Think ENGL 202D) if he or she hasn’t already — and another one if he or she already has. But taking a Microsoft Excel class is actually Wooten’s number one piece of advice to any student.

Sometimes, it’s important to maximize your comparative advantage. And Wooten argues that being better at Excel is more helpful for students going into fields with uncertain futures like economics, accounting, finance, or HR than knowing how to code.

The future for American workers isn’t totally bleak. The increased productivity of each individual worker as a result of the rapid advances in technology will mean that the overall economic pie should increase.

Also, people like to create jobs that probably don’t need to exist. Take David Graeber’s book “Bullshit Jobs,” for example.

“[Graeber’s] argument is that we are so fixated on the 40-hour work week that, rather than just admitting that we don’t need 40 hours, we create fake jobs for people to do,” Wooten said. “We’re just creating these jobs that don’t do anything.”

So, even if a computer steals your dream job, at least you’ll be able to occupy some made-up position.

Still, though, Wooten maintains an optimistic, “we’ll-figure-it-out” view when it comes to the future of work in the changing technological landscape. He even finds it fun to imagine the types of jobs that may be created that we can’t even imagine yet.

Plus, a declining birthrate in the US and increased productivity should mean that fewer people need to work. With a smaller workforce, the impact of automation may be less dramatic than it could be otherwise.

Wooten’s final piece of advice is to act rationally in the face of change — spoken like a true economist.

“You have to make good decisions. If you’re a good decision-maker, that will help you in the consulting, interactive, one-on-one jobs,” he said. “If you’re just memorizing processes, those people will be harmed by the changing labor market.”

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About the Author

Derek Bannister

Derek is a senior majoring in Economics and History. He is legally required to tell you that he's from right outside of Philly. Email Derek compliments and dad-jokes at [email protected]

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