The American workforce has been reshaping itself in recent years, and it hasn't always been easy to keep pace with all the change. Manufacturing and the blue-collar labor force were the backbone of the U.S. economy for decades, but many of those jobs have now been automated or shipped overseas. Thirty years ago, job seekers knew they could look to manufacturing to provide a good living, but the modern candidate has more trouble finding a sure thing.
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"Among iCIMS customers in 2016, white-collar jobs generally saw more applicants per position than blue- or pink-collar jobs did," says Josh Wright, chief economist for iCIMS. "While we don't have any direct evidence of why this is so, a few possibilities come to mind. It may be that there are more workers out there who would like to break into white-collar work, or it may be that these positions are advertised more widely, since they generally require more specialized skills. It's also possible that there's something different about the way employers recruit for white-collar versus other jobs, whether it's their use of applicant tracking, recruitment marketing, or some other aspect."
Not Your Father's Manufacturing Sector
That's not to say manufacturing jobs don't exist any longer. They do, and many of them remain vacant as the sector experiences a skills shortage resulting from the fact that many of today's manufacturing roles require very specialized skill sets.
"Advances in technology – smarter robots, the advent of 3D printing – are driving the need for more technical skills in the manufacturing workforce, especially the ability to work with computers," Wright says. "Executives at manufacturing firms indicate that the skills gap is even more acute for skilled production workers than for engineers."
While old-school manufacturing jobs don't exist in the numbers they used to, opportunities for STEM job candidates continue to proliferate.
"Today, factory work is increasingly automated, and employers need workers who are able to operate, maintain and troubleshoot with various kinds of technologies and equipment," says Wright. "This requires specialized training and skills that manufacturing workers didn't need a few years ago. Manufacturing now involves much more than traditional assembly line work."
Job Opportunities on the Rise – Sort Of
Other sectors display interesting changes as well. Retail, for example, offers more part-time work than any other sector, with 43 percent of available positions being part-time, per the iCIMS report. Similarly, 18 percent of the healthcare sector's labor force is made up of contingent workers whose numbers can be scaled up or down according to demand for services.
Those conditions are optimal for retailers and healthcare providers, but not so much for job seekers, who may struggle to maintain stable levels of employment and income as a result.
"The healthcare and retail industries face pressure to bring costs down, but they also have a need for flexibility, which follows directly from the consumer-facing nature of their work," Wright says. "Consumer retail purchases are highly seasonal because they are often driven by holidays or other calendar effects, and there's a strong daily fluctuation in foot traffic as well, so part-time work is a logical response. In healthcare, it can be hard to predict when individuals will fall ill or what course their illnesses will follow, and contingent work contracts allow the employer to respond accordingly."
What It Takes to Find a Job in the Current Market
Unlike those days when manufacturing was always there to fall back on, there is no longer one power industry that job seekers can rush to for a living wage and gainful employment.
"It's all relative," Wright says. "Every industry will have firms that are stronger or weaker than others, and chasing a hot industry may be a mistake if it's too much of a stretch. Besides, if all the seekers rushed into one industry, then that would create opportunities in others."
So, where should employment hunters be looking?
"'Where are the jobs?' is not just a question of which industries are growing the fastest, but which kinds of occupations and skill sets various industries are hiring for," Wright says. "Job seekers should focus on their individual circumstances and where they are best positioned to compete. They should search where they see a promising combination of bright prospects for the potential employer, good fit for their current skills, and opportunity to grow as a professional."