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Time to debunk 4 pieces of lousy career advice

Rick Newman
The Exchange
Source: Thinkstock

Every two years the Labor Dept. updates its outlook for more than 300 jobs and careers that are taking off, remaining steady or declining. And every two years, journalists pull a bunch of oversimplified and misleading career advice from the data.

A quick Web search for “fastest growing jobs” will pull up definitive-sounding lists of can’t-miss careers and recession-proof lines of work. Change that to “slowest growing jobs” and you’ll know which careers to avoid at all costs.

The problem with this conventional wisdom, however, is the job market is complex and it changes fast. Fast-growing industries aren't always the best to work in, and there are other important factors the Labor Department’s projections are unable to capture. Here are four types of common career advice to be wary of:

Healthcare is recession-proof. Partly because of the aging of baby boomers, more than three dozen healthcare professions are likely to see job growth of 20% or more by 2022, according to Labor Dept. projections. Healthcare jobs almost always show up on lists of the fastest-growing or most reliable careers. But anybody seeking to enter this field should be aware of a few caveats. Since everybody thinks healthcare is where the jobs are, there are lots of people competing for them. Average pay actually fell during the recent recession, according to Payscale, and it’s growing now at just a little more than 1% per year — hardly what you’d expect from a vibrant, recession-proof industry.

Only about 55% percent of healthcare workers qualify for employer-provided health insurance, the second-lowest percentage among 13 industries tracked by the Employee Benefits Research Institute. In the government’s latest employment report, the healthcare industry actually lost 6,000 jobs. And pressure to cut healthcare costs under Obamacare and private-sector initiatives is likely to intensify in coming years, which could pinch workers. So sure, there might a lot of jobs in healthcare, but there’s also plenty of turbulence that could shake up workers hoping for a secure and rewarding career.

There’s a logical fallacy behind entreaties to enter healthcare and other fast-growing fields: The assumption is a large supply of jobs means it’s a good field to be in. But pay, benefits and other important factors are determined by both the availability of jobs and the number of people going after them. If demand (the number of people looking for a healthcare job) exceeds the supply (the number of jobs available) then employers will have the power to lower pay, cut benefits and make tougher demands on workers. It’s the demand part people forget about when labeling healthcare a rich career target.

Construction is back! Electricians, carpenters, masons and other types of construction workers should see more than 30% job growth by 2020, according to the Labor Dept. The problem: Total employment in construction is still about 1.9 million jobs less than during the peak in 2006, so it will be quite a long time before everybody who used to have a job in construction has one again. The real-estate recovery is strong in places such as San Francisco and Atlanta and other cities where there was never much of a housing glut, but it’s still absent in stagnant cities including Baltimore, Philadelphia and many in Florida. So there might be demand for construction workers in some areas, but if it’s not happening near you, don’t be surprised. Again, it’s both the supply of jobs and the demand for them that matters, not just the supply.

You can earn a good living without a college degree. Maybe, if you’re the next Mark Zuckerberg. But it’s wise to be highly skeptical when you hear about “ high-paying jobs” that don’t require a college degree. Technically, there are a few of them, such as oil worker, if you’re willing to move to the Dakotas, or certain technical workers who stick around long enough to become a supervisor. But a careful look at the Labor Dept. data shows there are only a few lucky fields (air-traffic controller, Web developer) in which you can get a job without a college degree in a field with median pay of $55,000 or higher. With a college degree, there are dozens. It’s prudent to spend your education dollars on a degree that will generate good job prospects, but — usually — not to skip college altogether.

You should avoid slow-growing industries. That sounds like common sense, but there’s another logical fallacy here: the assumption you’ll commit to one career field and stick with it forever. More and more, people switch careers when their prospects change, or they acquire new skills that allow them to specialize in something trendy or bridge two fields or more. So while it might not seem very shrewd to become a travel agent (listed as a declining industry by the Labor Dept.), it might be a lot more fun to be a travel agent who writes a popular blog, develops expertise in ecotourism and maybe hosts a Web TV show.

The best jobs these days don’t typically go to workers with traditional skills anyway, but to those who can do many things well. Foreign-language skills often provide an edge, and entrepreneurial talent is always valuable, even if you work for somebody else’s company. The best career guidance will probably come from discoveries enterprising workers make on their own, not from the same advice columns everybody else is reading.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.