Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 7, 2018

Tennesee's hottest jobs

And why you probably won’t retire from the one you have now

Since bouncing back from the Great Recession, Tennessee’s economy has been in the midst of a prolonged expansion. The recovery, now in its eighth year, could soon become the longest since the end of World War II.

Most measures of economic and employment activities in the state are showing sustained, healthy growth, say economists and other industry seers who track economic data such as the jobs and wage growth.

And even though Tennessee has labor shortages in skilled trades that require specialized training, the state has plenty of good news when it comes to jobs, especially in urban strongholds such as Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.

The state’s consistently low unemployment rate, which was 3.5 percent in July and has been as low as 3 percent in the past year, is especially notable.

In-demand jobs in Tennessee run the gamut.

On one end there are jobs that don’t technically require schooling beyond high school but need workers. At the top of that list is home health aide, which according to the U.S. Department of Labor, will grow at a rate of 47 percent from 2016-2026. It is the third fastest-growing job in America, but the median salary is only $23,210.

Health care analysts predict pay for home health aides will increase, albeit modestly, as baby boomers age and as the overall industry comes up with incentives and perks that attract employees.

Wages can spike, often dramatically, for those who receive 18-24 months of specialized technical training, especially in health care or advanced manufacturing disciplines. For example, the much-in-demand job of medical sonographer (a technician who operates ultrasound equipment), starting salaries are often $40,000 and median salary is $65,620.

Another highly sought skilled worker, physical therapy assistant, requires a two-year degree, has a median salary of $57,000 and is expected to grow at a rate of 31 percent through 2026, U.S. Department of Labor statistics show.

Traditional jobs – teachers, social workers and sales reps – remain in high demand in Tennessee, and there’s an overwhelming demand for STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) careers.

Rob Liddell, director of university career services at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, says he’s seeing interest for many different careers from students – from creative entrepreneurs to data specialists.

“Web and mobile development, product management, data analytics, user experience design and digital marketing are roles that remain in short supply,” Liddell points out. “Resource analysts capable of measuring and forecasting yield and demand lead to more efficient production operations.

“Of course, hiring trends tend to track closely with economic, political and social indexes,” Liddell adds. “The construction industry with project managers, estimators and engineers is trending up over the last 12 months despite elevated costs for materials.

“Another trend that we’ve noticed is the creative entrepreneurial spirit that leads some students to support themselves through an Etsy store selling jewelry and others campaigning for public office.”

Workforce’s ‘epochal’ transition

Graduating college students with majors in fields such as finance, computer science, engineering or mathematics can look forward to promising – and highly lucrative – job opportunities with job titles such as computer systems analyst, information security analyst, nuclear engineer, statistician and software developer. Starting salaries are often $80,000 or more and median salaries are usually over $100,000.

Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips says job seekers of today must navigate an employment landscape that is much different than that of 20 or 30 years ago.

Even workers who have the education and skills needed to land a plum job can’t be sure their job won’t be replaced by technology or other disruptive factors in the economy.

“The day when a person finished their education in their late teens or early twenties armed with skill sets which led them to a job they kept for 40 years are gone,” Phillips says. “What is learned today, whether in traditional education or through a workforce development program, won’t get a person through the next 10 years, much less the next 40. The question becomes whether training and education for specific occupational and manufacturing tasks will be relevant as time passes.

“The world of work is undergoing an epochal transition,” Phillips adds. “The kinds of skills companies require are shifting rapidly and continuously, with profound implications for the career paths individuals will need to pursue.”

Philips advises employers and job seekers to keep an eye on the future with a willingness to stay flexible and always willing to undergo more training and education in an individual’s area of expertise.

“It is projected that by 2020 more than a third of the desired skill sets of most occupations will be skills that are not now recognized as important to the job or may not even be in our collective awareness,” he continues. “It will be greatly beneficial for individuals to choose an educational and career path that involves working alongside intelligent machines in highly technical areas.

“Workforce development and traditional education today should be about more than effectively training for current jobs but include planning for the workforce needs of tomorrow. Simply staying current on the latest trends and technology and the skill sets it demands will be the minimum necessary to provide constant education for skills maintenance.”

Economists and industry seers say the state is well positioned to attract and retain promising jobs because of its ability to court new industries and its commitment to increasing the percentage of Tennesseans with a college degree or certificate to 55 percent of the state population by 2025.

Job growth in Tennessee is outpacing the national employment growth of 0.6 percent per year, a comprehensive economic outlook report published in 2018 by the University of Tennessee’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research reveals.

Personal income growth in Tennessee is projected to strengthen and advance by 4.1 percent per year during the next 10 years, the report states. That sounds good but it’s not quite enough to keep up with the national income growth average of 4.4 percent.

And, it’s possible the UT report was a bit optimistic. The latest statistics from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages track positive income growth, but not altogether as positive as the UT report predicted – at least not yet.

The QCEW data shows annual average industry wage in Tennessee increased from $42,350 in 2016 to $43,545 in 2017, a 2.8 percent spike. The average hourly wage for production workers increased from $18.58 in 2016 to $19.40 in 2017, a 4.4 percent increase. The state median wage for all occupations increased from $32,800 to $33,870, a 3.2 percent increase.

Phillips says skilled labor and advanced manufacturing positions – from solar panel installers to chemical process technicians to robotics repair specialists – represent one way ambitious workers can move from low wage jobs into more promising, high-paying occupations that offer opportunities for advancement.

“Skilled labor is defined as a segment of the workforce with specialized know-how, training and experience to carry out more complex physical or mental tasks than routine job functions,” Phillips says. “Skilled labor is generally characterized by higher education, expertise levels attained through training and experience, and higher wages.

“However, the very concept is evolving,” he adds. “The rise of technology is causing great debate and a certain level of anxiety among skilled workers, who wonder if they will eventually be replaced on the job by a robot or a computer algorithm.

“Students who are not yet in the working world wonder what kinds of skills will lead to gainful employment in a new era. Skills in STEM are currently being promoted as the answer to staying competitive in the modern global workforce.”

Having so many openings for skilled and advanced trade occupations is good news for job seekers but often a frustration for employers.

Mark Campbell, owner of the Manpower franchise in Chattanooga, says the city’s labor market is as tight as he has seen in 25 years.

“It’s very hard, often impossible, to find enough people to fill all our available jobs,” Campbell acknowledges.

To help fill vacancies, Campbell recently decided to wrap a commercial van with Manpower branding materials with the intent of driving to outlying counties to look for qualified workers.

“I’m not sure what can be done about filling these jobs; it’s probably just going to take time,” Campbell points out. “Clearly, there’s a skills gap that we still need to address.”

Advanced manufacturing job creation in Tennessee far outpaces national growth. It is at 26.5 percent job growth rate in Tennessee compared to 4.3 percent nationally from 2011 to 2017, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.