UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Spring 2008

Jobs of the Future
How do we prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s professions…especially the ones that don’t yet exist?
Faye S. Wolfe

Photo: Stacy Madison

It’s six o’clock on a fall evening, and the annual Majors Fair is in full swing in the Campus Center ballroom. In the crowded aisles, dozens of undergraduates do-si-do around each other and pause at tables where representatives from an array of departments and programs have set up shop. Meanwhile, down the hall, under buzzing fluorescent lights, Assistant Director of Career Planning Caroline Gould is encouraging a handful of young women who have yet to pick a major to have visions—visions of themselves out of college and in the workplace.

Sitting sideways in her chair and facing the half-dozen students, Gould asks, “Who’s taken one of those tests that identify your aptitudes and interests? Gone to an informational interview? Done job shadowing?” And the big one: “What’s keeping you from deciding on a major?”

One woman answers, “I’m afraid of being stuck with my choice for the rest of my life.”

“Study what you love; it gives you energy,” Caroline Gould urges the group. “If you can’t see yourself doing just one thing forever, remember that these days, people have three or four careers and seven to nine major jobs in a lifetime.”

If that comes as news to you, here’s another surprising estimate: a third of jobs that will be available in 10 years have yet to be invented.

“They said the same thing when I was in high school in 1971—that we would fill jobs that didn’t yet exist,” says Ira Bryck, director of the UMass Family Business Center. And they were right, he adds: “Who’d have thought how many consultants there would be, or life coaches, or any number of people dealing with ideas instead of products?”

Add to Bryck’s list of new or newly mainstream jobs: web designers, personal trainers, equitation therapists, bloggers, acupuncturists, barristas—pulling espresso has become a career to the extent that its practitioners have their own guild, conferences, and websites. As for acupuncture, it may be more than 2,000 years old, but now there’s even acupuncture for pets.

On the flip side, some occupations—movie projectionists, for one—have nearly disappeared, and others, having been transferred to cheaper labor markets overseas, are as good as gone to Americans. Freshmen trying to picture themselves in a profession might be excused for pulling the bedcovers over their heads.

“The main certainty is that the future is more uncertain than ever,” says Joel Martin, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. Like Bryck, he evinces wry wonder at the unforeseen changes that have come about since the seventies—and some that have not: “When I was growing up, the future was nuclear cars and measuring our speed on the metric system.”

Yet from where Martin sits—in his office in UMass’s Victorian-era South College building—the future looks bright. He sees it as holding special promise for students of traditional subjects like English literature because, “the future is so uncertain, the economy is so dynamic.” More than ever, tomorrow’s workplace will be geared toward “creative, innovative, resilient people with a sense of self and a sense of purpose,” in Martin’s words, “who can interpret and respond to novel circumstances, who can think critically.”

Studying history, for example, “requires you in a focused, disciplined, discrete way to immerse yourself in a set of problems,” says Martin. That’s valuable, he believes, “not because you’re necessarily going to be a historian, but because you’re learning how to investigate new realms of discourse, to navigate different domains of knowledge.” Through learning to work creatively and collaboratively, CHFA students in the fine arts are also cultivating skills useful in a variety of work settings. Martin believes, “Out of anxiety can come a short-sighted, narrow perspective. The worst possible tactic in such a time is to fixate on acquiring a limited set of skills or job.”

A highly successful entrepreneur in the field of broadband technology, Dev Gupta ’77G comes at the subject from a different angle but shares Martin’s way of thinking about how to teach to, or learn for, the future. Gupta, who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the College of Engineering, believes, “Education that is canned and formulaic doesn’t work. You’re no longer able to say, ‘I’ll become this and I’ll be secure.’”

Noting that when he started his first company in the early eighties, faxes weren’t yet in use, he says, “The future moves so rapidly, you need to be always morphing yourself. It’s hard to predict where things will go, but if you’re not a person who is willing to learn and change, to accept that everything is changing, it will be difficult. Self-discovery is a key aspect.”

In a soft-spoken, rapid delivery, Gupta sketches out what’s happening in the global marketplace: “Large companies are disappearing in many sectors… Geography is no protection or advantage…The playing field is being leveled for American workers...It’s no longer a given that you will be worth three times the wages paid to someone in India or China.” Today’s students need to take all these developments into account, says Gupta. His career advisory to them: “Only you are responsible for yourself. Five years after graduation, when you are laid off for the first time, you will feel the responsibility squarely on your own shoulders.”

So what does an engineering student have to look forward to? Gupta offers some predictions: “Engineers may become like doctors or dentists. The equipment to set up shop for yourself has become relatively cheap. For $50,000, you can set up a lab the way a dentist sets up a practice and do state-of-the-art research. Engineers might team up with people from all over the world to solve specific problems and take on projects that are all over the world.”

He also sees demand already growing for “designer cancer drugs that are matched to an individual’s genes, and artificial organs and limbs,” and explains that “because electronics can come in tiny packages, there will be a growing industry around creating, manufacturing, and supplying health-maintaining sensors and monitors, devices on a doorway or in your bed, that check your blood pressure and heart rate.”

Over in the Isenberg School of Management, Professor Robert Nakosteen sees these kinds of technological advances creating niches for savvy business students, such as those who combine business studies with learning about biology, health care and engineering. That kind of education could lead, for instance, to a career in pharmaceutical management—taking research to commercialization. Those ISOM students planning to work on Wall Street, says Nakosteen, will find exciting opportunities elsewhere; the financial services industry is moving more and more of its operations offshore. “Merging technical and management skills may be where the jobs of the future will be,” he says.

In recent years ISOM has expanded cross-disciplinary experiences for its students. Beyond that, Nakosteen thinks that students are best prepared for the future by being taught to think in a nonlinear way. “I ask students to look at an argument from all sides, to unpeel the layers.”

Biology professor Elizabeth Connor is another campus proponent of thinking differently, when it comes to preparing students for careers in science. Connor says, “Science is a constantly growing body of knowledge; people are discovering new things every day. [In the life sciences at UMass Amherst] we’re broadening our focus from passing on a body of knowledge to teaching skills. As a result, our students will be prepared not just for the snapshot of biology as it is today, but for the excitement and innovations in biology that will unfold over the decades of their careers.”

Currently, undergraduates are being offered speaking roles. They learn the scientific method in project-based courses, working in small teams on real-life research questions, and in overhauled lecture classes that have them answering questions and interacting with the professor and each other through a class communication system. They also get greater exposure to the physical and quantitative sciences, in recognition of how research increasingly spans traditional disciplines. The goal is to give life sciences students, says Connor, “the set of skills that scientists use so that they can address novel problems, figure out what they need to know, and acquire new knowledge.”

“There’s an element of risk in being a scientist,” Connor notes; the fundamental work of science is tackling unanswered questions and problems. For that reason, she says, “teaching science can’t be confined to the ‘here are the facts, give them back to me’ style of teaching.” Better to give them tough problems, to place students in situations of “constructive discomfort”—to ask them to struggle and allow them to fail.

There’s an element of risk in choosing the road less taken, too. The Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) program enables undergraduates to craft their own multidisciplinary curricula rather than fit themselves into an existing major. In doing so, they are betting that “studying what you love,” as Caroline Gould put it, will pay off in tangible and intangible ways.

It’s already paid off for BDIC alumni who have made careers in such once-uncommon vocations as storytelling, conservation management, and venture capitalism. Recent concentrations have included writing children’s literature, primate conservation, and corporate fitness and stress management. The program attracts students who seem to be adept at anticipating trends and employment opportunities.

“I’d like the whole world to know that BDIC continuously produces self-motivating graduates who think outside the box,” says its new director, history professor Dan Gordon. He envisions building BDIC into an incubator for “super-interdisciplinary thinkers, people who are comfortable in many fields and can address the high-level problems that could stall our whole society.” As an example, he cites the need for individuals with the medical, philosophical, and legal background to formulate sensible policies on stem-cell research and genetic engineering.

BDIC coordinator Linda Roney thinks this isn’t such a stretch for BDIC students: “They typically are self-advocating and mature intellectually. They have to apply two times to BDIC, first to take the proposal class and then to enter the program itself. Their admission is based on their proposals, which are judged for their feasibility. They also need to be able to sell themselves to professors so that they can get into classes.”

Some BDIC graduates have already demonstrated salesmanship. About one in 10, says Roney, has already started a business or company. A percentage will go on to law, medical, or business school after graduation, but their goal may be quite untraditional, to go into environmental law, for example, or alternative medicine, or promote “green” enterprises. Says Roney, “A lot of our students are passionate about saving the world.”

John Gerber, a professor in the College of Natural Resources and the Environment, sees that passion, too. Many of his students wonder about the future in a broad way, one that takes into account threats like global warming.

“The question my students are asking is, ‘How are we going to live?’” he says. Behind the query is both hope and anxiety. “More hope than anxiety, because they’re young.”

Sitting in the Blue Wall nursing a coffee from the Pura Vida coffee bar (organic, fair trade, with a portion of the proceeds going to good causes), Gerber unfolds today’s Daily Collegian: “Look at the front page.” Before the reader are what he calls “harbingers of a new world”: headlines about the looming global water shortage, and a symposium on wood, “the renewable resource.” Gerber’s aim is to help students be ready for that new world. “What they need is not training. It’s preparation, guidance,” he says of his approach to teaching. “They have a yearning for the language and tools to live.”

Some students expressed that yearning directly four years ago when they told him that as much as they liked his class on sustainable agriculture, they wanted more. The first time “Sustainable Living” was offered, 35 students enrolled; now 300, representing 35 majors, sign up. While covering many aspects of the big picture—energy, food, health, waste management—Gerber also tries to help students see where they might fit into the big picture. He teaches them models for decision-making that get at big questions: What is calling you? What do you love? What do you care about? What are your gifts?

“The students’ answers are often around family, community, connection. They want to be seen by someone else,” Gerber says, adding, “We’re tribal, we’re looking for tribal connections, but many of us find unsatisfying substitutes in alcohol, rioting, shopping.” He believes that these questions are inseparable from career questions, and if students answer rather than ignore them, down the road, they may “avoid the third heart attack and the second divorce.”

In a basement classroom in Goessman one afternoon, Gerber turns over the question of what jobs of the future might look like to his sustainable agriculture class. In small groups, the students put their heads together, then present their ideas, by turns serious, lighthearted, earnest, and ingenious. A small sampling: permaculture consultants, rickshaw drivers, herbal landscapers, wood mill operators, biodiesel processors, vermiculturists, urban rooftop gardeners, microlenders, witch doctors, AAA bicycle workers, compost toilet janitors, alternate transport specialists; population controllers (this elicits a whoa! from the group), seed bank managers, urban wildcrafters…

As the students run down their lists, occasionally Gerber interjects comments that are funny, supportive, and practical. For example, when someone suggests “campus sustainability coordinator,” he points out that having both social and technical skills is an asset when working with different groups to get things done.

Gerber also offers his beliefs. Among them, anything that gets us to “simple living” will be key to us having a future. Given that nature has been recycling for 15 billion years, he notes, we should find ways to follow suit. He promotes appropriate technology, matched to local needs and local resources.

Gerber believes today’s graduates will find their place, and their livelihoods, in tomorrow’s world—and maybe they’ll save it: “There is plenty of work to be done on this planet, but it requires people coming together. Everyone knows what is right—I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do if I didn’t believe that.”



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