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Jobs report reveals engineering, science are only safe careers of the future

Posting in Design

As innovation accelerates, automation and its masters are feeding off the corpse of the old world at an unprecedented pace.

The unemployment rate is down to 8.5 percent and the White House is trumpeting the automotive sector, but these figures still represent a failed recovery in industries that employ millions, like construction.

Yet even in the depths of our economic malaise, a handful of sectors not only failed to contract -- they never stopped creating jobs. According to the Information Technology Industry Council, which drew these numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "the tech industry continued to add jobs even as national unemployment increased sharply as the economic crisis took hold."

By the summer of 2010, as other sectors continued to limp along and a recovery seemed almost out of reach, job growth rates in research and development (i.e. science, at least as it relates to industry) and computer systems design were back to pre-crisis levels.

ITI argues that all this job creation was a result of innovation, exemplified by companies like Apple. But the real story here is that the positive jobs trend in IT and science, coupled with the negative jobs trend in other industries, was as much a product of creative destruction.

As Technology Review pointed out in a recent lengthy piece on the subject, "information technology is reducing the need for certain jobs faster than new ones are being created."

"…new research is showing that advances in workplace automation are being deployed at a faster pace than ever, making it more difficult for workers to adapt and wreaking havoc on the middle class: the clerks, accountants, and production-line workers whose tasks can increasingly be mastered by software and robots."

In the most recent recession, we can't discount the role of outsourcing, peak net energy or Wall Street's unregulated trammeling of the real economy, but it's important to realize that the faster technology transforms the world of work, manufacturing, energy, communication and all the rest, the more important it is to be one of the disruptors -- a scientist or an engineer -- than a worker in the fields being disrupted.

That doesn't mean everyone should be an engineer or a scientist, but it does mean that as new ideas reverberate through every field of human endeavor again and again, mastering technology and moving up the value chain to the point at which innovation (and disruption) happens is absolutely critical.

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure