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Tomorrow's coolest jobs

Your next job may not exist yet.

What does the future look like? It’s a question inquisitive people have pondered for millennia. Some seemingly implausible prognostications have come true—Nikola Tesla’s circa 1900 vision of personal wireless communications and Philco’s 1961 prediction of online shopping—and some have failed miserably (think ubiquitous jet pack travel and the apocalypse a thousand times over).

Predicting the jobs of the not-too-distant future isn’t quite as fraught with inconsistency, though. Emerging technologies and population trends make it possible to create reasonable—if surprising—forecasts about tomorrow’s jobs. Here’s a glimpse of some up-and-coming industries and careers in which you may find yourself working in the years ahead.


Industry: Sensors

If you believe futurist Thomas Frey, sensors are on the way to running just about everything in the world. These tiny devices that measure and respond to their physical environments were the topic of the Trillion Sensor Summit last October at Stanford University. There, experts shared their predictions that there will be a whopping 45 trillion sensors all around us within the next 20 years. There already are billions of them in everything from your thermostat to your smartphone, and their application is only going to continue to expand exponentially.

“The sensor world alone is going to create massive new ways of doing things,” asserts Frey, author of Communicating with the Future: How Re-engineering Intentions Will Alter the Master Code of Our Future.

Sensors will be used in nearly every aspect of our lives, and they will continue to get smarter as they interact with each other more, according to Frey. Sensor systems will work together to ensure that your house is at the right temperature when you get home, your blood sugar is stable and you can get through the airport more easily and quickly because security will automatically know you are clear. One day, sensors may help us communicate with pets and plants, too. The possibilities are endless, and so are the related job opportunities.

Jobs in 5 years: Smart home component design, manufacturing, sales and maintenance jobs, software and interface developers

Jobs in 10 years: Automated airport security jobs, sensor integration software and programming jobs

Jobs in 20 years: Pet communication technology jobs, including research and development, software and interface design, sales and marketing positions and manufacturing jobs


Industry: Drones

Amazon recently made big news when it announced it was working on Amazon Prime Air, an unmanned aerial vehicle delivery system designed to get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less. While it sounds like science fiction, those following drone technology weren’t surprised.

Though drones have been around for more than a century and are commonly used in military operations around the world, they’ve been gaining in popularity in civilian applications in recent years. Today, drones are available on the open market for less than $1,000 and are snatched up by enthusiasts who want in on the action.

A study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that the drone industry will add 100,000 jobs to the economy by 2025, with most of them in agriculture. Applications for drone technology will be widespread, with experts predicting their use in forest fire management, search and rescue operations and police and fire departments, among countless other areas. There also will be the need for tight security so the drones that can do so much good won’t be used to do harm.

Jobs in 5 years: Drone research and development, manufacturing, design and maintenance jobs, drone agricultural operators and trainers

Jobs in 10 years: Air traffic management system developers and operators for drones, drone security jobs, government regulatory jobs

Jobs in 20 years: Personal drone-related jobs, such as manufacturing, sales and marketing, training and maintenance


Industry: 3D Printing

3D printing made its mark at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, a bellwether of technological innovation, where it was the fifth most popular product category at the annual exhibition.

Though 3D printing—the printing of three-dimensional objects from digital data—has been around for decades, it’s starting to gain a foothold in the market as prices go down and possible applications go up. Entrepreneurs already are using 3D printers to create prototypes for their designs, something they used to have to outsource before waiting weeks to get their models.

“Very soon now, [3D printing] will replace a tremendous amount of customer manufacturing,” says Edward Gordon, workforce consultant and author of Future Jobs: Solving the Employment & Skills Crisis.

Today’s 3D printers can create objects from plastics, metals, paper, and even living cells, which means sometime in the not-too-distant future we could be printing cars, houses and transplant-ready organs. All these innovations will bring skilled positions into the workforce to support them from conception through fruition.

Jobs in 5 years: 3D structure printing-related jobs, including 3D designers and modelers, engineers, architects, application and software designers

Jobs in 10 years: Biotechnology positions to support 3D medical-related printing

Jobs in 20 years: 3D food printing-related positions, such as manufacturers, suppliers and equipment maintenance jobs


Industry: Health care

Health care has been hot news in recent years. Between rising obesity rates and soaring health care costs, there are plenty of challenges to go around. There’s a bright side, though: new jobs.

“While we’re creating lots of problems with our sedentary lifestyle, we’re also creating opportunities,” says Frey. “Our ability to monitor our own health will ramp up exponentially.”

Frey envisions a future where wearable medical devices, run by—what else—sensors, will regulate our body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and even the chemical composition of our sweat to give a real-time analysis of our state of health. The future, he believes, will be more data driven and self-managed as technology empowers individuals to provide their own high-quality health care. The result will be new jobs in creating and managing these innovations as they become mainstream.

Jobs in 5 years: Wearable medical device research and development, design and manufacturing jobs, software and interface engineers

Jobs in 10 years: Self-administered pharmaceuticals, remote medical consultants, training and education jobs

Jobs in 20 years: Big data management jobs, integration software specialists


Industry: Education

As of the end of 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 4 million jobs available, yet the unemployment rate in January still hovered near 7 percent, with millions out of work or no longer looking for jobs. What gives?

Though technological advancements—like the ones in the sensor, drone and 3D printing industries—are creating new jobs, not every potential employee is qualified. The challenge of how to prepare workers for these skilled jobs is compounded by the fact that there is a shortage of teachers who are themselves qualified to teach students these skills.

Gordon sees employer training as one way to update the skills of employees so they’re ready to tackle these unfilled jobs. “Investing in human capital is going to become part of doing business again,” he says.

For his part, Frey sees specialized training as part of the solution. “I’ve been predicting the rapid growth of micro-colleges,” he says of the schools he envisions offering short-term programs to provide students with skills they need to break into new fields.

Whatever the solutions are, they will create job openings in education from K-12 to post-secondary degree programs and professional development.

Jobs in 5 years: Teachers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)

Jobs in 10 years: Corporate training and professional development specialists

Jobs in 20 years: Teachers and administrators for specialized training programs around new technologies


3 ways to prepare for tomorrow’s jobs

Just how do you get ready for future jobs when they may not even exist yet? “The key is to stay ahead of the curve and keep your skills and knowledge up to keep your opportunities up,” advises job market trends expert Edward Gordon. Here are three ways to stay on top of emerging industries and fields so you’re ready for the jobs of tomorrow.

1. Read

“I spend two hours a day [reading] about what has changed,” says futurist and author Thomas Frey. “It’s a fascinating world, and my life depends on it.” If you don’t make predictions about innovations for a living, apps like Zite can help you by sending you just the news and information you’re interested in each day so you’re reading what matters to your life—and your career.

2. Talk with other curious people

Frey belongs to a couple of “mastermind groups,” like-minded individuals who meet regularly to discuss innovations and ideas. While you may not have access to preeminent thought leaders, take advantage of the minds in your own network and lectures on hot topics so you can discuss what you’ve been reading about with others and explore new ideas together.

3. Take a class

If you find a specific topic particularly interesting, consider stepping back inside a classroom to learn more. Whether it’s training offered by your employer or a vendor, an online webinar or a workshop at a local community college, invest your time and energy in getting better acquainted with a subject so you can see if that’s where your own future lies.