Careers Headed for the Trash Pile

By Jenna Goudreau
Friday, February 18, 2011

Economists believe that many of the jobs lost in the “great recession” will be coming back. Construction and high finance positions that were temporarily slashed, for example, are expected to steadily return. Regardless of the economic dip, however, several career paths have been declining for years due to larger structural changes in the economy. These dying occupations are headed for the trash pile.

“The kinds of jobs that are disappearing are the jobs that pay really well [for] relatively unskilled workers,” says Harry Holzer, Ph.D., Georgetown University economist and co-author of “Where Are All The Good Jobs Going.” He lists manufacturing jobs as a leading example, saying that well-paid assembly jobs that require modest training and only a high school diploma or less are a thing of the past.

So where did all the good jobs go? “The combination of technological advancement and off-shoring has shrunk these jobs,” says Holzer.

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Technology has certainly put postal service mail sorters on the chopping block. After losing almost 57,000 jobs between 2004 and 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects a further 30% decline in this occupation by 2018.

According to jobs researcher and author of “2011 Career Plan,” Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D., this occupation has seen some erosion from increased communication via phone, e-mail and cloud computing. Yet the chief reason for the decline, Shatkin says, is that mail sorting has become mostly automated, and robots are replacing people.

Machines are also taking over one of the largest job categories: office and administrative support workers. About 300,000 administrative jobs disappeared in the five years before 2009, and the BLS projects continued contraction throughout the next decade. File clerk positions, for example, are expected to decline 23%.

“Word processing, voicemail and the Internet make it easier for skilled professionals to do [clerical work] themselves,” says Holzer. “Employers are under pressure. If they can do this work more efficiently, they will.”

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Advanced technology has wiped out many other jobs that will soon conjure only nostalgia. It seems that Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” has become a reality. With the rise of television and Internet marketing, door-to-door sales jobs contracted by 40% in the last five years for which data is available, and telemarketer positions declined by 25%.

Moreover, the global marketplace has displaced once steady jobs like seamstresses and textile workers. Sewing machine operator jobs fell by 77,000 in five years and the BLS expects another 72,000 jobs lost by 2018 — a 34% drop. Meanwhile, occupations like hand sewing, fabric mending and textile knitting have also seen sharp declines in recent years.

“Sewing is all overseas now,” says Shatkin. “[The U.S.] just can’t compete with low-wage countries.”

In some cases, market and technology changes simply speed up an occupation’s decline once it goes out of fashion, Shatkin says. Stage performers — a category that includes magicians, jugglers, clowns and dancers — suffered a steep five-year decline of 61%. Increased interest in movies and home entertainment technologies, including video games, he says, has decreased the demand for live performances.

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Among the occupations that saw the steepest declines (culled from BLS data provided by Moody’s Analytics), men and women seemed equally burdened. While mail sorters and carpenters are male-dominated, for example, office workers and sewing machine operators are female-dominated occupations. Nevertheless, experts agree that women have the advantage in the new marketplace.

“On average, there has been a shift away from traditionally male-dominated sectors like manufacturing to the service sector,” says Holzer, “and women have made more progress.” He notes that women now receive almost 60% of bachelors and masters degrees and dominate the health-care sector, which is one of the fastest growing categories.

Ultimately, for those looking for job stability, “the lesson is to do something that involves human contact,” says Shatkin. He advises that workers seek jobs that are in demand and have to be completed by a person, rather than a machine.

Top Dead or Dying Career Paths


Computer Operators
This field declined by 31% from 2004 to 2009 and lost 42,000 workers, and the BLS expects continued deterioration. With most professionals using personal computers with ever more sophisticated data processing, jobs based solely on entering commands and monitoring computer terminals are outdated or increasingly specialized.

©Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Stage Performers
The five-year decline for this career path, which includes magicians, jugglers, clowns and dancers, was a startling 61% — one of the steepest on this list. According to jobs researcher Laurence Shatkin, Ph.D., live performances have fallen out of fashion and have been almost entirely replaced with movies and home entertainment technologies.


Postal Service Mail Sorters

After losing almost 57,000 jobs between 2004 and 2009, the BLS expects a further 30% decline in this occupation by 2018. With more automated processes for mail sorting and increasing correspondence via e-mail and fax, this job is quickly becoming unnecessary.


Holistic Healers

Alternative medicine specialists like acupuncturists, homeopathic doctors and hypnotherapists may be an endangered species. The field declined 44% between 2004 and 2009, losing about 26,000 jobs. Because health insurance companies typically do not cover these specialties, alternative medicine may be becoming a more niche, luxury service.


Office and Administrative Support Workers

About 300,000 administrative jobs disappeared between 2004 and 2009, and the BLS projects continued contraction throughout the next decade. Secretaries and file clerks are no longer in demand as companies cut costs. Moreover, technologies like voicemail and easy-to-use word processors have enabled professionals to do their own clerical work.

Click here to see the Top 10 Dead or Dying Career Paths

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