The Jobs the Pandemic May Devastate

Projecting how many people will work in hundreds of detailed occupations in 2029 is a bold exercise — even without the uncertainty of the pandemic.

But labor experts within the U.S. government try to do just that. And their latest assessment of which jobs will grow over the next decade has alarming implications for jobs requiring less education — while also forecasting a boom for epidemiologists and other health-science jobs.

That assessment, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, emphasizes all the uncertainty that accompanies projections, and it stresses that these are estimates of structural changes, not forecasts of cyclical booms and busts. Long-term projections are often wrong, especially for more volatile sectors like mining and construction, but the agency’s estimates are typically well reasoned and sober.

The original B.L.S. projections, made last year without taking pandemic effects into account, called for cumulative economywide job growth of 3.7 percent from 2019 to 2029. The new pandemic-informed projections cut that to 2.9 percent in the “moderate impact” pandemic outlook and 1.9 percent in the “strong impact” one.

Both of these new outlooks assume more remote work and higher demand for relevant technology services; less in-person entertainment and travel; and more investment in public health than would have happened without the pandemic.

In the “strong impact” projection, there would be 25 percent more epidemiologists in 2029 than the original baseline projection for 2029, the largest increase among nearly 800 detailed occupations. The 10 occupations with the biggest increase in projected employment relative to the baseline projection are all in medical, health-science and technology fields. The 10 occupations with the largest declines relative to the baseline projection include restaurant, hotel and transportation jobs.

On balance, the new projections modestly speed up the occupational shifts from the original baseline projections. For instance, the pandemic is poised to accelerate the originally projected fast growth in software developer jobs, and to hasten a previously expected decline in cashier jobs.

The projected employment changes because of the pandemic are concentrated in a relatively small number of sectors. Three-quarters of all jobs are in occupations where projected employment in the strong-impact scenario differs from the original baseline scenario by less than 2 percent.

For the most part, the sectors originally projected to grow fastest over the next decade in the baseline projection — like nurse practitioners, home health aides and many other health care occupations — are still projected to grow fastest.

Similarly, the sectors originally projected to shrink most — such as administrative assistants, mail carriers and product inspectors — are still projected to decline similarly in the pandemic-affected scenarios. Across all occupations, the correlation between employment growth in the original projection and the strong-impact pandemic projection is 0.92. (A correlation of 1 represents a perfect relationship, and 0 represents no relationship.)

The sectors facing additional job loss because of the pandemic are low-wage sectors where workers are already struggling. The strong-impact pandemic projection shows the lowest-paying occupations losing jobs over the decade. This would be a significant shift from the original pre-pandemic projections, in which growth was greatest in the highest- and lowest-wage occupations, with middle-wage occupations lagging. The pandemic could end up replacing polarized growth with a net loss of lower-wage jobs.

Grouping occupations by educational requirements instead of wages tells a similar story. For jobs requiring a bachelor’s or graduate degree, projected upbeat employment growth remains nearly the same under the pandemic-affected picture as in the original baseline. The decline in projected employment growth because of the pandemic is almost entirely concentrated in jobs requiring only a high school diploma or no diploma.

The pandemic makes forecasting a risky business. Near-term projections of G.D.P. or unemployment hinge on things like the rate of virus mutations and vaccine distribution. Longer-term predictions depend on how much the pandemic permanently changes how we work and spend.

But the pandemic has already widened existing inequalities; these new projections suggest that the unequal effect on jobs could long outlast the pandemic.

Jed Kolko is the chief economist at You can follow him on Twitter at @JedKolko.