High-Impact Occupations and the Pandemic

Last fall, we cautioned against making knee-jerk programmatic decisions given the precarious economic environment we were in. At that time, we noted that the top six bachelor’s occupational categories with faster growth and higher salary projections remained unchanged since before the pandemic.

This year, while there are still plenty of unknowns, we continue to move further away from the COVID-19 induced recession of 2020. With at least some of the COVID-19 volatility now behind us, what is the current outlook for occupational growth over the remainder of the decade? Has COVID-19 influenced major changes that should factor into program strategy?

Where We Are Now

Much has been written about the ongoing economic recovery following the COVID-19 recession from February 2020 to April 2020—the shortest recession on record for the United States. The unevenness of that recession and the subsequent recovery have been broad, and experienced differently based on gender, economic status, and occupation.

On gender, it has been reported that COVID-19 has disproportionately hurt women’s employment. On economic status, we know that high wage employment (defined as $60,000 and over annually) has recovered much faster than low-wage employment (defined as $27,000 and under annually). On the industry front, certain sectors have simply fared better than others. According to Emsi data, for example, the finance and insurance sector grew by 2% (+117,062 jobs) from 2019 to 2021, while the accommodation and food service sector declined by 22% (-3,050,799 jobs) during that same time.

Other signs like rising inflation, worker shortages, higher rates of resignations, and ongoing supply chain issues prove that we still have some ground to cover until we can say the economy and labor market are fully back on track. At the same time, some progress has been made since the COVID recession. After peaking at 14.8% in April 2020, the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% as of September 2021—slightly above the rate seen in August 2015, which was about halfway through the decade of uninterrupted economic growth following the Great Recession. Additionally, just last week, weekly initial jobless claims fell below 300,000 for the first time since before the pandemic. Though there is still ground to make up to match pre-pandemic unemployment, the gains made in recent months are promising.

Identifying Mid-COVID High-Impact Occupations

With some of the COVID-19 volatility behind us, what is the current outlook for occupational growth over the remainder of the decade and has COVID-19 influenced major changes?

To answer these questions, we went looking for the most high-impact occupational opportunities projected over the remainder of the decade. To do so, we established metrics around projected occupational growth (identifying occupations projected to grow above the 6% average from 2021-2030), median wage hourly earnings (identifying occupations earning above the median for each respective typical entry-level education category), and number of new jobs created (identifying occupations projected to see over 3,000 new jobs this decade).

Figure 1 shows the results of our analysis, identifying the top five high-impact occupations for those educational attainment levels relevant for institutions of higher education.


Projected High-Impact Occupations, 2021-2030

Projected High-Impact Occupations, 2021-2030 Figure 1.
Source: Eduventures analysis of Emsi data


Among the projected high-impact jobs, healthcare and computer-aligned occupations dominate. In fact, of the 25 occupations identified in Figure 1, most (19) are clustered in two occupational categories: healthcare practitioners and technical occupations (12) and computer and mathematical occupations (seven). No other occupational category has more than two jobs making it on this list.

The bachelor’s degree segment stands out, in particular, as it is the only segment where each identified high-impact occupation is projected to grow by 20% or more, see over 10,000 new jobs, and report a median hourly wage over $40. In some ways, this may speak to the ever-strong weight placed on the bachelor’s degree in today’s economy despite some movement away from bachelor’s degree requirements and growing interest in non-degree programs. Of course, that is not to pour cold water on the other categories as each point to opportunities with a compelling mix of growth, size, and pay.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) accounts for the impact of COVID-19 on occupational projection data in numerous ways, including cyclical growth as a result of the pandemic recovery (e.g., occupations seeing significant decline during COVID-19 projected to see fast growth in the years ahead) and structural changes to occupations due to the pandemic itself (e.g., increased demand for jobs more suitable for the rapid shift to telework). So, did the high-impact occupations in Figure 1 make the cut because of or in spite of COVID-19?

To figure this out, we looked across all occupation growth projections from 2018 (pre-pandemic) to identify the high-impact occupational projections at that time. Figure 2 compares the 2018 projections of high-impact occupations (2018-2028) to the 2021 projections (2021-2030).


High-Impact Occupations Pre- and Mid-Pandemic

High-Impact Occupations Pre- and Mid-PandemicFigure 2.
Source: Eduventures analysis of Emsi data which leverages a combination of BLS, state, and internal projection methods


This exercise reveals that 18 of the 25 top high-impact occupations identified mid-pandemic are the same as those identified pre-pandemic (reflected in the light blue column in Figure 2). This means that the majority of top high-impact occupations have not been significantly affected by cyclical or structural changes to the labor market caused by COVID-19. Associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree-aligned jobs, in particular, experienced significant stability.

On the margins, there is some evidence of COVID-affected high-impact occupations. Avionics technicians, a high-impact occupation pre-pandemic, lost almost 1,000 jobs from 2019-2021 as air travel was negatively affected in 2020. On the other hand, natural sciences managers still saw strong growth from 2019-2021 yet were simply overtaken by other high-impact occupational projections for the next decade.

Additionally, all but one of the high-impact jobs that are new for the next decade is aligned to health and computer/information occupational groups. While some of these occupations (like operations research analysts – a position likely suitable for telework) may be benefiting slightly from structural labor market changes, longer-term market trends may also be at play as we plunge further into the information age and our healthcare system adapts for an aging U.S. population.

One caveat is that we purposely focused on high-impact occupations for this review ensuring we captured high-paying jobs in each credential segment. Given what we know about the uneven impact and recovery from the pandemic, there is certainly important movement among low-paying occupations.

The Bottom Line

Based on this analysis, Eduventures encourages institutional leaders to continue thinking about long-term labor trends and employer needs, follow the data, and resist knee-jerk reactions to short-term pandemic impacts.

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Clint Raine

Eduventures Senior Analyst at Encoura

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