Part IV: Employability and the Economy

While some people are fortunate enough to take college classes for their own personal interests, most people who seek post-secondary education (whether online or not) are typically looking to make themselves employable. Whether that means a person takes a practical path and chooses a degree they know will be in demand, or whether they choose to pursue the path of passion does not matter. One of the major benefits of a college degree is deep awareness of how to learn and how to think about your skills and interests from an entrepreneurial perspective. Some career paths are easier than others, but what makes today’s world economy dynamic and progressive is that it supports an infinite number of money-making opportunities if a person knows how to make their skillset valuable to others. Today’s economy supports doctors-turned-artists, athletes-turned-politicians, and entry-level-salespeople-turned-CEOs.

So where are all of the jobs today?

A Paradigm Shift

Many years ago a college education placed someone several steps above the average person. After World War II, less than two in every 5 Americans had completed high school. Today, 2 in 5 every Americans holds a college degree, and more than 90% of Americans now hold a high school diploma. Demographically, the college degree of today truly is the high school education of the past. Even a graduate degree doesn’t guarantee the same positions it used to, especially now that more and more universities are turning to adjunct and associate faculty rather than tenured professors.

When looking for jobs beyond the most basic unskilled positions in the American economy, a college degree no longer places a person ahead of the pack—it makes them a part of it. Many employers will filter out submitted resumes that lack a college degree entirely, which means that a degree is both a necessity in many fields and a not-so-special achievement, at that.

What jobs are in demand?

If you want to get into the workforce fast with a college degree that will increase your chances of success, you have to know what’s growing—and where. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has compiled lots of information and projections on the economic outlooks of a broad range of positions in America. The top twenty occupations in with the greatest percent change of employment projected between 2014 and 2024 are:

Wind turbine service technicians Commercial divers Occupational therapy aides Genetic counselors
Occupational therapy assistants Nurse practitioners Physician assistants Interpreters and translators
Physical therapist assistants Physical therapists Operations research analysts Audiologists
Physical therapist aides Statisticians Personal financial advisors Hearing aid specialists
Home health aides Ambulance drivers and attendants (not EMTs) Cartographers and photogrammetrists Optometrists

The most in-demand and growing fields include:

  • Healthcare.—Almost every healthcare profession is growing at an average rate, with many projected to grow significantly more quickly than average. Many of these career paths require certification that can only be obtained with some amount of face-to-face work, but the availability of online and blended program offerings is also growing steadily. Some positions to watch out for: Physical therapists, physician assistants, registered nurses, occupational therapists
  • Social work and social sciences.—Not every position in this field is growing, but many are outpacing averages. The positions in greatest demand have business applications or are related to healthcare. While online degrees are available in this field, some states have stringent clinical or licensure requirements that demand face-to-face work, so most programs are hybridized. Some positions to watch out for: Mental health counselors, social workers, industrial-organizational psychologists
  • Science and mathematics.—Policy changes and increasing concerns about public health and well-being are major driving forces of positive growth in STEM-related jobs. Disciplines heavily focused on theory, such as advanced mathematics and geoscience, make for great online or hybrid programs. Some positions to watch out for: Mathematicians, geoscientists, environmental engineers, biological scientists, science teachers
  • Engineering and technical fields.—Engineering is a rich field with lots of job prospects, especially since it intersects so many areas like business, medicine, and the environment. Laboratory work is a fundamental component of engineering programs, so the best online degree programs are hybridized and require hands-on laboratories as part of the education. Some positions to watch out for: Civil, mechanical, chemical, biomedical and computer engineers
  • Computing work.—As more and more businesses shift to advancing technology, support for these enterprises becomes essential to success. Computer and web programming are especially well-suited for online learning, especially if a student has money to buy equipment (computers and software). Some positions to watch out for: Computer support specialists, computer systems analysts, programmers
  • Communications.—While most jobs in communications are growing at an average or slower rate, technical writing is always in demand. The ability to clearly communicate complex topics, combined with strong technical skills, is usually rare in the market. Online degrees work well for studies focused on developing skill with the written word. Some positions to watch for: Technical writers, public relations specialists

If you have passion for a slowly growing field like photography, hospitality, or art, you shouldn’t necessarily throw in the towel just because these careers aren’t in demand. Because of a slow growth rate and a low availability of jobs, you will have to work harder and will have to be more creative and flexible to make a career work for you. If you get a degree in a low-demand field where competition for just a few jobs is extremely fierce, going into huge amounts of debt is not the most practical choice. Make it work, but minimize your debt.

A Quick Note About Studying at Home

Many of the major growing fields don’t seem like they would lend themselves well to online education. Nursing, for example, requires an understanding of field work that can’t be obtained in your pajamas on the couch. But this couldn’t be further from the truth—a growing number of online-hybrid programs exist even in these fields.

Students in a hybrid program can complete a lot of the theoretical and rote degree work online at home, but will have to visit local educational institutions on occasion for practical courses, clinical work and laboratory science, and may need to work on local hospital rotations. In general, the core curriculum of most bachelor programs (basic college-level mathematics, writing, history, and general science) can be obtained online before a student decides to go to a brick and mortar school and finish up a few years of a specialized learning track (like engineering or a hard science).

The Long Haul

Keep in mind as you read these projections and current assessments that much of this data reflects the current state of the marketplace as of 2016, and most projections only go out to 2024 at the latest. If you start your college career now, these projections will probably hold. Healthcare professions will be almost universally growing, while many social work and social sciences jobs will be in decline. The realities of the situation could change during your time in college, however, or around the time of your graduation.

With student loan interest rates much lower than they were a decade ago and efforts being made to make higher education even more accessible, the future looks bright for college degrees both online and offline. The job market has, similarly, recovered from the damage caused by the recession of the late 2000s in many fields, so if you haven't already headed to college, now is a good time to join the pack of competitive applicants.

If you're looking specifically at online degrees, the future is bright. The slow death of diploma mills and other predatory, poorly-reviewed for-profit colleges has opened employers' minds regarding online degrees, and unless a massive scandal hits distance learning, this trend will probably continue. The quality of education available, similarly, is likely to increase; even graduate degree programs like MBAs at public universities are starting to offer programs with more than 90% of the coursework available online.

Are you prepared for the future?