Hard World, Dream Jobs

Job hunters are often faced with two bits of common, but potentially contradictory, advice. The first: Find your passion. The second: Enter a field that's growing, not shrinking.

So, you sit down and see that the experts are projecting hot careers of the future in computer-systems design, management, scientific and technical consulting, and health care. But none of those thrills you. As a college student, a recent graduate, or someone planning a mid-career change, how can you position yourself to take advantage of the most promising arenas while still doing something you like?

"A savvy job seeker has to assess both their self-interests and the current and future needs of the marketplace," said Cheryl Heisler, president and founder of Lawternatives, which helps lawyers choose alternative careers. "One without the other — especially in a tight job market — is a doomed philosophy."

The good news is that a lot of information exists. A useful place to start is the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov). Every two years, the agency publishes its Occupational Outlook Handbook, which examines the anticipated size and composition of the labor force over the next decade and predicts which fields will expand and which will contract. Within a given field, it describes the different sorts of jobs and typical salaries. The most recent edition, published a year ago, offers projections up to 2018.

But what does one do with this wealth of projections on job growth? Consider, for example, a field that, according to BLS, will grow by 45 percent during the next eight years: the design of computer systems and related services. Interested? Suppose, however, that you don't want to pursue a computer-related career. Look elsewhere? Maybe.

Or better yet, give the field a closer look. Bobby Schnable, the dean of Indiana University's School of Informatics and Computing, points out that the category of computer-systems design includes disparate components. "Twenty years ago, the field was about the innards of computing," he said. "These days, the big majority will be about computing related to health care, marketing, and social networks." At his institution, Schnable noted, students have applied their work in computing to fields such as business, art, and psychology.

What is true for computing is also the case for other careers. If you're attracted to a particular field, investigate the options. For careers in technology, for example, Advanced Technological Education Television (atetv.org) offers online videos about numerous job opportunities and educational programs. Another source of information about occupations is onetcenter.org.

Nancy Collamer, a career coach in Old Greenwich, Conn., gives her clients the same advice she offers her daughter, a college sophomore. Her daughter started at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, but her focus shifted to public health. Rather than switch majors, she plans to combine both interests by pursuing communications work in public health.

"I told her, you need some hard skills — how to produce a video, how to write well, how to use social media," Collamer said. "I say follow your passion, but get good, strong skills. Find out what is meaningful and use it as a core, guiding mission, but know that there are a lot of different avenues."

Finding different avenues is exactly what Heisler was contemplating when she started Lawternatives (lawternatives.com) as a business. "I knew a lot of lawyers who were unhappy," she said, so she looked for ways that they could retrain for another career without investing a lot of money and time.

"You need to be able to see alternatives and options," Heisler said. "It's like if you're into food. There's more than being a chef at a restaurant. You can be a food stylist, do institutional cooking, or a lot of other things." A good lawyer, she said, knows how to negotiate, communicate, persuade, and write — skills that are useful in running a business, working at a nonprofit, or succeeding in myriad other vocations. "You have to be willing to do the homework for what you love."

Doing her homework was key for Elizabeth Dempsey, 25, of Summit, N.J., who recently graduated from college and was researching job prospects and salaries. Interested in marketing, she applied to a few local firms. While job hunting, she brushed up on her computer skills through Web sites such as lynda.com, where a monthly fee of about $25 pays for online tutorials in Adobe, Outlook, Photoshop, and other computer programs. Dempsey's strategy worked. A financial public-relations firm offered her an unpaid internship in September and, a few weeks later, a salaried position.

Or try a low-tech but time-honored way to assess whether the career of your dreams is on the upswing or losing ground: Check out who is advertising jobs. Leslie Coplin, 45, of Larchmont, N.Y., worked in television production before taking time off to raise a family. When looking to reenter the workforce, "I did something that's not scientific, but something my mother always said to me and her mother said to her — look at the "˜help wanted' ads," she said.

For a year, Coplin combed through the classifieds in The New York Times while keeping her possible interests, such as physical therapy and nursing, in mind. "I kept setting my grid — my own personal interests overlapping with what's actually out there," she said. Coplin paid attention to the requirements for experience and accreditation, and she looked for offers of part-time work, which is what she wanted. "I also know I didn't want to dabble," she said. "I wanted a career, not a job."

In the end, Coplin chose social work, and she started pursuing a master's degree this year. "It's something I wouldn't have thought about in my 20s, before I had dealt with marriage, children, and the elderly," she said. "But it's now desirable, based on my age and life experience. I wanted something I could do into my 70s — something that I would become better at, the more lines I have on my face and the more years I have under my belt." The BLS data confirm the wisdom of Coplin's decision: The number of jobs in social work is expected to increase by 16 percent during the next eight years.

The information from BLS and other sources can help in choosing a career, whether you're new to the workforce or pondering a midlife change. But beware of becoming fixated on statistical predictions. They're nothing more than "one idea of how the future is going to look," said David Passmore, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University and the director of its Institute for Research in Training and Development. Job projections are based on assumptions about business decisions and growth, he noted, but "you can't predict crises, disasters, and political foolishness." Besides, the statistics represent macroeconomic expectations that individuals must translate for their personal circumstances.

Passmore offered another piece of advice: No matter which career path you choose, whether it's as an engineer, cosmetologist, or car mechanic, be sure to learn what the job really entails. Do doctors spend an inordinate amount of their time filling out paperwork? (Yes.) Do astronomers actually spend most of their day gazing through telescopes? (No.) Passmore isn't alone in concluding that too many college students have only a vague idea about the career they wish to pursue, and that idea is based more on television and movies than on reality.

Rose Baker, director of Penn State's Center for Regional Economic and Workforce Analysis, suggests a way to infuse more realism into the process: requiring college students to shadow workers who already hold the jobs they covet. This might help job seekers, especially young ones, not only narrow down their career interests but also focus their educational plans. They may find, Passmore said, that a vocational-training program or a two-year degree will prove more useful than a costly four-year degree.

"You have to look at how the world works," he explained. "As has been said, good work involves what you can do best and finding out what the world wants — and making a match."

The author writes the ShortCuts column for The New York Times. Her book, Better by Mistake, is due out in March. She's at twitter.com/atugend.