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Career Counseling for the Twenty-First Century

As a college professor, I hear a lot of career concerns. As my students prepare to enter working lives that will last 50 years or more, practically all of them try to be futurists in choosing the skills in which to invest. If they pick an occupation that declines in the next half-century, they may deeply regret it. They know that a mid-life career change is difficult, so they want to make the right choice while they are very young.

From what my students tell me, there is a widespread fear of “commoditization” of jobs in the modern, information technology-driven global economy. They worry that in coming years even highly skilled people might be hired and fired indiscriminately, bought and sold like so many tons of copper or cases of frozen turkeys. Job satisfaction would suffer accordingly. After all, if the job requires nothing more than knowledge of existing technology, then it can be done by anyone anywhere in the world who has learned this technology, or, worse by some computer.

Indeed, while it is often thought that computers will replace only low-skilled jobs, my students remind me otherwise. Medical expertise is in some ways being replaced by computer-based diagnostic systems (expert systems), and much of the work that engineers once did has been replaced by computer-assisted design (CAD) systems. My students worry that such trends may continue, reducing job security, lowering rates of pay, and even eliminating some of the jobs altogether.

Some students, reckoning that it is better to buy and sell than to be bought and sold, conclude that they should be trained for careers in business, finance, or possibly law. They want the kinds of skills that will keep them among the managers, rather than the managed, and some intuit greater job security and better career prospects at the international level of these fields. By contrast, my students often regard occupations like medicine or engineering – involving highly specialized technical knowledge that does not prepare them to navigate the international economy – as particularly vulnerable to commoditization.