Trying to predict the future is always tough, but in many ways its toughest for those in college, trying to figure out where they'll find jobs when they graduate ... especially if the thrust of your interest is in technical fields. It used to be that you could look at the industry as it stood and pick the job that you wanted to graduate into, but increasingly it is likely that the job that you'll have within ten years doesn't even have a name today.
Of course, the same can be said to be true if you're already working - the pace of technology change is quickening, even going into the headwinds of a recession. Regardless of where you are in your career, understanding the jobs that are opening can point both to advancement possibilities and give you a better likelihood about the places that you'll be doing your existing work down the road.
The dominant themes for both government and private investment can be broken into a few key "tech" areas: green tech, econotech, biotech and socialtech, along with informatics, which ties these sectors together.
Green tech focuses in increasing the efficiency of existing energy sources and finding new ones, the creation of more environmentally friendly infrastructural elements, as well as dealing with a world where climate change is likely to be an increasingly important issue. Econotech focuses on the process of making businesses more transparent and agile, of establishing the relevant information networks and regulatory mechanisms to enable the evolving workplace, and to make it easier (and safer) for people to prepare for their futures in a post "crash" world.
Biotech has been around for a while, but it is also now subsuming nanotech, as people begin to realize that the best, most robust nanotech systems are those that have a strong organic component to them. Socialtech looks at how information systems can be used to glue together different social structures and deals with such issues as education, entertainment, and governance.
Informatics is in turn the use of computers and computer-augmented devices to provide information for the understanding and manipulation of your environment. Informatics should be seen as the next stage of the computer revolution, as computers become increasingly embedded into both the physical and social structures that we live within.
This article is the first in a series covering future tech career choices, and you are highly encouraged to add your own suggestions of new tech jobs in the comments below.
Green is the next black - at least from a jobs standpoint. Green technology - that technology that is focused on dealing with power generation and consumption, climate change, transportation, construction and environmental management - will likely be one of the major sources of new jobs over the next couple of decades. Ironically, many of these jobs will also require significant computational resources to make happen, as they involve managing systems rather than single machines.
Distributed Power Engineer. Between solar powered systems, wind, hybrid generators and geothermal sources, power systems are moving away from large, centralized plants and towards a distributed grid of point sources, many owned by individuals. One of the major challenges of such systems is the need to be able to more effectively integrate common standards of usage that makes it possible for people to buy and sell power from their generators and for that power to flow effectively across the grid. A distributed power engineer is likely to work on such standards, to coordinate new point sources and to work to weave a second power infrastructure above, below and around the existing power grid.
Bio-fuels Scientist/Engineer. While technically falling in the realm of biotech as well (there's a lot of overlap in all of the fields), the bio-fuels scientist is interested in both the extraction process from existing high-energy plants, including sawgrass and algae, and in engineering those plants to be capable of favoring one or another type of fuel type. Bio-fuels engineers, on the other hand, are much more interested in building the catalytic towers and other physical plants necessary to make large scale production of bio-fuels possible. A related field is fuel reclamation engineering, who is involved in converting biologic wastes into energy or plastics.
Carbon Auditor/Assessor. A carbon auditor is an accountant who specializes in keeping track of greenhouse gas emissions, and as such likely has a fairly strong background in environmental systems or power generation. Such a position would arise regardless of whether the US moves towards a carbon market or imposes carbon taxes (or both). An assessor is an auditor working with a regulatory agency.
Mag-lev Engineers. Trains are coming back, but these trains are a far cry from the aging fleet of Amtrak passenger trains and oil burning engines. There will be a strong need for true train engineers - people to design and build high speed mag-lev trains and their tracks, as well as to revamp (and in some cases rebuild) the extensive physical IT infrastructure necessary for tracking such trains. Similarly, system engineers capable of managing these large and complex transportation networks will simarly be in great demand.
Dirigible Engineers. A significant amount of fuel is spent on "just-in-time" package delivery that makes sense in a few cases, but for many goods is a significant waste. The twenty-first century will likely see the rise of "high-speed" dirigibles, capable of carrying surprisingly large loads faster than a truck could carry them, but slower than a jet, making them ideal for deliveries that are not time sensitive. Such dirigibles have a much smaller carbon footprint than aircraft of equal cargo capacity, and they are notable for being both much quieter and considerably less destructive of habitat - and they need a far smaller field from which to take off and land than a traditional airplane. Dirigible engineers would be skilled in the design, production and operation of dirigibles and related lighter-than-air craft. Such dirigibles also offer the potential for passenger service that's likely to be far more pleasant than riding on a craft of the currently disintegrating airline industry.
Environmental Architect. Architecture (of buildings and hard infrastructure, not computer systems) is entering into a Renaissance. Strong, lightweight carbon and ceramic composites have made possible the creation of buildings that can integrate more effectively with their environments than ever before, including integrated (flexible) solar panels, intelligent electrical systems, windows that can be tuned to allow or impede air flow, organic LED lighting strips, and so forth, as well as materials to create temporary structures that have a high degree of stability but can easily be broken down and used elsewhere. The green architect is as much a student of materials engineering, environmental footprint and structural design as they are of aesthetics.
Reclamation Engineer. Whereas the architect is concerned with building, the reclamation engineer is tasked with tearing down. There are literally millions of homes, offices, and shopping centers that were produced in the 1960s and 1970s that are now reaching the end of their useful lifespan, and that will likely never be resold. The role of the reclamation engineer is to salvage as much as possible from these structures before they are scrapped with that material going to the dump. On the flip side, reclamation engineers will also work with architects to build structures that degrade cleanly, that have a minimal waste factor when they are "reclaimed", and that have a minimal impact upon the environment in the process. Similarly, reclamation engineers will also be tasked to restore damaged environmental habitats to as close to their pristine state as possible.
Environmental Analysts. An actuary is a statistician that develops probability tables for the likelihood of certain events. Environmental analysts are part actuaries, part climatologists, part economists. Their role is to both assess the likelihood of climate change induced effects on businesses and governments and to assist in the preparation of policies to ameliorate these effects. Such analysts would work in conjunction with organizations such as FEMA and state government officials in order to establish guidelines for orderly evacuation and recovery in the face of hurricanes, fires, earthquakes and the like. Such analysts might end up as Chief Environment Officer (CNO) for corporations or governmental agencies.
Environmental Sensor Engineer. One of the more intriguing benefits of computer miniaturization is that it makes it easy to place small, non-invasive monitors into environmental spaces, making it possible to monitor weather conditions, the presence of foreign parasites, human intrusion and activity, water levels and salinity and so forth. Sensor engineers would develop plans and set up sensor grids, then would establish monitoring services that could be used to help build effective models for land management or detect illegal logging.
This represents only a fairly small cross section of possible "environmental engineering and green" positions that may come open within the next few years. Do you have any other such jobs that you see being in demand in the Green space?