Predicting future jobs is a mug’s game

UQ economics researcher Dr David Adamson grapples with the challenges of predicting future employment patterns.

Anyone who has dealt with predicting the future knows it’s a mug's game.  You will be wrong.

So let’s have a look at what has occurred over the past 10 years, as a foundation for some wild guesses about the future. There are two critical things when analysing data. The net change (total number) and the per cent change. The first tells you which is the dominant area, and the per cent change tells you which is experiencing the greatest change in the total number of jobs over time.

The table below describes the percentage changes in the Australian workforce by sector over the past 10, five, three, and one year/s. These time divisions are important for the discussion as they help us pull apart what is going on and why it can be dangerous to predict future trends.  For example, over the past 10 years mining has been booming with 6 per cent growth in people being employed in the industry, but that boom is over and mining has had the greatest contraction over the past three years and last year the number of people employed contracted by 2.3 per cent.

  Increasing   Decreasing  
  Last 10 years      
1 Mining 6.4% Manufacturing -1.9%
2 Health Care and Social Assistance 4.3% Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing -0.9%
3 Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 3.8% Information Media and Telecommunication -0.3%
4 Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Service 3.4% Wholesale Trade 0.8%
5 Arts and Recreation Services 3.0% Retail Trade 1.0%
  Last 5 years      
1 Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 3.9% Manufacturing -2.8%
2 Arts and Recreation Services 3.8% Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing -2.1%
3 Health Care and Social Assistance 3.7% Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Service -0.6%
4 Financial and Insurance Services 3.4% Wholesale Trade -0.5%
5 Mining 3.2% Construction 0.6%
  Last 3 years      
1 Health Care and Social Assistance 4.1% Mining -4.8%
2 Real Estate Services 4.0% Manufacturing -3.8%
3 Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 3.6% Wholesale Trade -2.3%
4 Arts and Recreation Services 3.1% Electricity, Gas, Water and Waste Service 0.2%
5 Financial and Insurance Services 2.7% Information Media and Telecommunication 0.2%
  Last Year      
1 Health Care and Social Assistance 11.0% Manufacturing -6.0%
2 Financial and Insurance Services 10.1% Arts and Recreation Services -2.5%
3 Administrative and Support Services 9.7% Mining -2.3%
4 Professional, Scientific and Technical Services 7.3% Real Estate Services -2.1%
5 Information Media and Telecommunication 4.5% Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing -1.4%

Data from ABS Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Quarterly, Feb 2016, Catalogue No: 6291.0.55.003

Data is based on the November Quarter last year 2015.

While the employment trends give us some idea of what is happening, we also need to consider the key drivers of change.

Jobs in the health care and social assistance sectors will continue to dominate future employment opportunities as the Australian society continues to age and health care costs increase. Logically, a lot of people will want to get their hands on these funds to either find new solutions to problems, find a cure for something that really isn’t a problem (i.e. create a market for a product they have)  or offer some form of service to make people’s lives better.

While the demands for health care professionals (doctors, dentists and nurses) will be high and those that research issues such as diseases, new drug development and policy will always exist, the new jobs will be focused on dealing with how to:

  1. Rejuvenate the body:  This will include building body parts in next-generation 3D printing machines and working out how to grow replacement organs that your body doesn’t reject.  Think about being the first person to create an eye that has better vision than you have now.
  2. Providing health care for the individual: This includes developing designer drugs and tailoring lifestyle solutions to improve people’s physical and mental health.  These roles will look at improving a person’s health at all stages of their life.
  3. Designing equipment to help with the care of people at home and at health care institutions: We are an aging population that is heavier than the last generation.  We need to design aids to help people live more comfortably at home and to assist nurses to move patients around.  Will we be seeing the first form of robotic automation to assist helping people in and out of beds?

Technology is already a huge part of our lives and it will continue to integrate itself into our daily routines. The iPhone has been around for less than a decade and it has revolutionised telecommunication and how we live our lives. In 20 years’ time, the possibilities in this space are endless but they can come at a price. How will we balance these alternative outcomes and what services will we need to negate any adverse outcomes?

Jobs that have to deal with the consequences of climate change are likely to increase. We are now experiencing the hottest year on record. In 20 years’ time we will be dealing with the consequences of a changing climate.  How are we going to deal with the new extremes in temperatures and droughts? But, perhaps more importantly, what can we do to reverse the process? How will we face the possibility of reversing change not by laws and legislation but by finding ways of assisting nature to getting back to a more natural state? 

The future offers myriad jobs that we know about and the above tables and figures give you an idea of what will still be in demand in 20 years’ time. But there are other areas that we simply haven’t contemplated yet. The good news is that there are core skills to help you make your way in the world. These core skills will remain disciplinary based, and they are your fundamental strengths to draw upon to solve problems. The strength of your core skills is what makes you marketable to an employer and gives you the advantage when working for yourself.  One way of determining how good your skills are is via further studies (university) or training (apprenticeships).  So you need to get yourself into the best institution or training course you can.  But be prepared. Over time you have to either gain new core skills or adapt these core skills to the new emerging problem of the day.

Good luck. 

Last updated:
23 June 2016