Unemployed? Just out of school? Collecting a steady paycheck but considering making a move?
If you’re launching a job search and anticipating the kind of long, discouraging ordeal common in the wake of the Great Recession — those dark days of high unemployment, finicky employers, carefully crafted résumés sent out into apparent black holes — you may end up pleasantly surprised.
For those with science, engineering or computer backgrounds, “the future looks very bright,” said Angie Froistad, director of the Career Center at the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering (CSE). “I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to be in this field. The technical skills are in demand from a variety of employers, both in and outside of Minnesota, nationally and internationally.”
Assorted factors, including economic recovery and aging baby boomers, have combined to create something of a job-seeker’s market.
In the second quarter of 2016, Minnesota’s job-vacancy rate — a measure of the openings employers are trying to fill — was 3.6 percent, representing 97,580 jobs. That’s the highest in 15 years, excluding a brief hop to 3.7 percent a year earlier. It’s well over three times the 25,885 jobs available in late 2009, when the post-recession vacancy rate plummeted to 1 percent.
“Minneapolis-St. Paul has one of the tightest labor supplies in the country, and so does Minnesota as a whole,” said Oriane Casale, assistant director of the Labor Market Information Office at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, which compiles the figures.
And the trend isn’t changing anytime soon. The growth in labor supply, or availability of workers, has slowed drastically, to a projected 0.3 percent from 2015 to 2020, compared with 2.7 percent in the 1970s. That slowing is only expected to continue.
Boomers aging out
As with so many cultural phenomena, the employment situation is tied to the life stages of the 75-million-member baby boomer generation, born between 1946 and 1964. With 10,000 people a day turning 65, boomers are aging out of the workforce. The Generation Xers coming up behind them, numbering a mere 66 million, can’t fill the openings they’re leaving. And while 75.4 million millennials born from 1980 to 1995 slightly outnumber boomers, the youngest are just 19 years old, most not ready to step into those jobs.
Within industries, more specific factors play a role. Workers may be retiring earlier from physically demanding jobs such as construction (with a vacancy rate of 5.9 percent), building and grounds cleaning and maintenance (5.7 percent) and farming, fishing and forestry (5.4 percent). Food preparation and service offers 13,645 openings — more than any other field — partly because college graduates who’d parked there for temporary income are finding jobs in their chosen fields.
Health care, Casale said, “never really stopped booming,” even during the recession. High vacancy rates in personal care and service (6 percent) and health care support occupations (6.3 percent) reflect growth in jobs designed in part to serve the needs of — you guessed it — aging boomers.
To fill positions, employers are loosening their standards. They’re offering to train workers they might previously have rejected for lack of experience. They’re disregarding factors once considered hiring liabilities, Casale said. “Employers are realizing they’re going to have to be open to people who may have gaps in their résumés, going to have to be open to people who are older.” (Take note, boomers who do want to keep working.)
The best of times, the OK times
Of course, landing a job is easier in high-vacancy industries, where members of shrinking labor pools are in a position to be picky.
“It’s almost like a tale of two cities,” said Sara Wegmann, co-founder of Edina-based CareerPrep, a service focusing on recent graduates.
People with degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) currently have an advantage over liberal arts majors, Wegmann said. They can focus on particular types of jobs or companies, and can potentially demand better benefits and pay.
Sixty percent of students graduating from the U’s College of Science and Engineering found jobs in less than two months, and 80 percent in less than four. Many entertained multiple offers, averaging 1.7 per student, though “some got as many as six,” Froistad said. They stepped into starting salaries averaging $65,000, often with generous signing bonuses.
“There’s phenomenal potential in that area,” said CareerPrep’s other co-founder, Audra Emerson. To remain unemployed, “you have to really not want a job.”
But, Dickensian analogy aside, it’s not the worst of times even for philosophy and art history majors.
“Our overall assessment is that the job market has continued to improve” for liberal arts majors as well, said Paul Timmins, career services director at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. For the past couple of years at the university’s annual job fair, he said, “we’ve had the most employers we’ve ever had.”
Some fast-growing fields need people with liberal arts backgrounds, too (for example, health care-related industries like insurance). Also, hiring patterns may shift in upcoming years. Boomers with less physically taxing jobs, who can extend their careers longer, still have to retire eventually. Fewer than 10 percent of people older than 75 remain in the labor force, according to the Demographic Center. By 2039, all boomers will be over that age.
That’s an admittedly distant landmark. But it does suggest opportunities will continue to grow in the meantime.
“The beauty of a liberal-arts major is we’re not just preparing you for one job,” Timmins said. Liberal arts majors graduate with “a batch of core competencies” that are adaptable to shifting employment trends and career changes over a lifetime.
“That’s good news in the long run,” Timmins said. “But for our students, they do need a job after graduation.”