Gearing Up for Tomorrow's Hot Careers

How and where to get the right kind of training for your next job.

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It's hard to think about careers that are "growing" when 15 million Americans who want to work can't find a job. But it's a little easier to think about the path to employment. As the economy rebounds, questions are likely to shift from "Where did all the jobs go?" to "How do I get the job?"

The conventional wisdom still applies: Occupations with higher education and training requirements, such as accounting and postsecondary teaching, will earn higher wages. But three fifths of the 30 occupations with the largest expected increase in jobs have only on-the-job training as their most significant source of preparation, according to the Labor Department. (For high-growth jobs with short-term training, think home health aides and office clerks; carpenters are among those occupations that would require long-term training.) And employment in occupations that require only a two-year associate's degree is expected to increase more rapidly than employment in any other education category.

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Over the next decade, some of the fastest-growing occupations that require only an associate's degree or less will be home health aides, dental hygienists, veterinary technicians, and physical therapist assistants. The rub is that there's not much money in them. Pay for home health or personal care aides—people who help others in their homes who are disabled, cognitively impaired, or in need of day-to-day living assistance—is usually about $10 an hour. (But most training programs for the occupation are just six weeks.) And the middle 50 percent of veterinary technologists—the people who may perform lab tests, assist with dental care, and treat medical conditions in animals under the supervision of a veterinarian—earn only between $23,000 and $35,000 a year. Dental hygienists and physical therapist assistants, on the other hand, boast median annual wages of about $66,000 and $46,000, respectively.

But if you're interested in the vet tech field, you would probably have plenty of options to choose from. Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College in New York, estimates that graduates of its program receive between four and eight job offers.

If you already have a bachelor's degree and you're trying to find a stable job that will let you help people on a personal level, don't rule out a field just because its entry requirements might seem beneath you. "Community colleges see a lot of students with bachelor's degrees coming back to get a degree in an area where they can actually get a job," says Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas–Austin. And chances are that you would have already completed many of the general education courses that make up a good chunk of the associate's degree. LaGuardia's Mellow says that can sometimes shave up to a year off the program.

If you don't have the general education credits, experts say most of those classes can be taken online, which might be a better fit for your schedule if you're juggling work or family responsibilities.

Nursing is at the top of the heap when it comes to job growth. It is projected to gain more jobs than any other occupation over the next decade, its median annual salary is about $62,000, and the profession requires only an associate's degree. But plan it out before you dive in. "There's a lot of hype about jobs in nursing, but you really need to investigate and do your homework first," says Beverly Welhan, dean of health sciences at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa.

To understand the full scope of the profession and to make sure that it's a good fit, she recommends that interested people talk to as many people in the field as possible, including calling their local hospital and asking if they can shadow someone on the job. And while there might not be much money in it, doing an internship is a great way to network and learn about the work—which can pay off later if they hire you. Also, math and various areas of science such as microbiology and biochemistry are at the core of nursing, so the academic program can be quite rigorous. "There's a huge scientific background to the profession that people don't think about," says Welhan. But one of the occupation's rewards is that nurses enjoy flexible scheduling that allows them to continue their educations, spend more time with their families, or tend to other pursuits.