The Career Opportunity Pendulum

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
~Alan Kay

"What's a hot career?" Well, a standard answer to that might be "health care" or "IT". But, as a Career Counselor, I've learned that that question can be a dangerous one to answer for clients. I had a client come in to my office once and say, in so many words, "just tell me what the hottest career field is, that's the one I'm going for!" And, being very green at the time, I told him! It's one of my top ten most embarrassing moments as a Career Counselor...

The "Pendulum Syndrome"
The problem is that what is hot today, may not be tomorrow - for many, many different reasons. One of these reasons is what I call the "pendulum syndrome."

The Pendulum Swings to the Upside
It works this way - a career field is determined by the U.S. Department of Labor to be "hot" (translation: has a good outlook or plentiful opportunities). Word about this gets around, and people begin to enter training programs to get into this "hot" field. And, eventually, these people complete their training programs and enter the field. Word gets around that "so and so" got this training and was easily able to get a job, and more and more people decide this is the career to pursue, thus leading to more and more graduates and more and more spots being filled. So, the pendulum swings to the hot end of the occupational outlook spectrum. Wonderful!

The Pendulum Swings to the Other Side
Of course, this can only go on for so long, before the field is no longer "hot" because many of the available openings have been filled, or because the availability of workers exceeds the availability of jobs. At which time the field goes "cold" (translation: no longer has a good outlook or has a lack of opportunities). Too bad for all those people who are still in their training programs figuring they're going to be able to easily get a job in that field when they complete their training. And especially too bad for all those people who really weren't that interested in the field to begin with, but saw it only as an opportunity to get a job. Indeed, they may still be able to get a job in the field, but it may not be as easy and, once obtained, the job may not be quite as secure as they had hoped. So, we see the pendulum swing from the hot end of the career outlook spectrum to the cold.

When Bad Things Happen to Good People
Seeing people caught in the middle of the "pendulum syndrome" isn't pretty. I actually worked at a school where graduates were coming in to see me because they couldn't find full-time jobs in a field the school said had a "hot" outlook. And they were not happy. Well, perhaps when they entered the program two years ago the outlook was still good. The catch is that outlooks change on a dime due to as I mentioned before, many, many different factors... and the "pendulum" is always swinging.

The Moral(s) of the Career Opportunity Pendulum Story
So, what's the moral of the story? Well, there may be several. One is that you probably shouldn't completely trust a school's assessment of the occupational outlook. It is a business after all, and the need to make money by recruiting students into its programs may compromise their position to give advice on career opportunities, no matter how earnest their intentions. Another is that you probably shouldn't completely trust the U.S. Department of Labor. Again, no matter how earnest their intentions the truth remains that they have at times been wildly off in their predictions. In fact, I know of one Career Counselor who has made of this fact a comedy routine revolving around the Labor Department's predictions and the actual, far different, outcomes. And perhaps another lesson you can derive from this is that it would be better if you never, under any circumstances, use occupational outlook alone to make a career decision.

How to Avoid Getting Burned by the Pendulum
So, how might you better make the decision about which career field to enter? Well, there are many factors to consider. Some good ones are your interests, your values, and the skills you enjoy using, combined with the salary you need to make and where geographically you'd like to work. It's also good to think about how the nature of the work fits your own nature. Indeed , these are probably much better, and certainly much safer, factors on which to base a career decision. I'm not saying you shouldn't take occupational outlook into consideration. I'm saying occupational outlook is only one small element of your career choice, and it's one that you need to take with a rather large grain of salt.

Using occupational outlooks to make a career decision is a bit like playing the stock market. You are actually trying to time the swing of the pendulum so that you invest at the right point. A little tricky to say the least. If you're feeling really lucky, go for it! Otherwise, think of outlook as just another item to consider... and consider it with a good dose of skepticism.

"October: This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February." ~Mark Twain

Career & Academic Planning Services

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