What are the jobs of the future? Is demand for software designers growing, or is that sort of work destined to go mostly to lower-paid workers overseas? Will the aging of the baby boomers bring a need for nurses with more sophisticated training? Or will cost concerns push providers to rely more on lower-level health care workers?
These kinds of questions are interesting to most of us, but to the people running Central Massachusetts colleges, they are the difference between success and failure. Especially with unemployment in the Bay State struggling to fall below 6 percent and student loans a big concern for many families, students need to leave college ready to work. But it can be hard to say what job openings will look like when this year's freshmen graduate — let alone five or 10 years into their careers.
Robert E. Johnson, president of Becker College in Worcester, has been thinking a lot about these issues lately. The school is preparing to roll out a number of new program ideas in early 2013.
"We just recently conducted a market analysis in terms of what employers will be looking for over the next 10 years, what students are looking for in terms of majors, average salaries and things of that nature," he said. "It really starts from a perspective of looking at market demand. That's a little tricky because a lot of the jobs that will exist five or 10 years from now we don't even know what they are."
Johnson said a good example is the title "social media marketing manager," a phrase largely unheard of only a few years ago but which now represents a strong career path.
Looking forward a few years, he said Becker is making a big bet on its video game program, not just because of the vast current market for digital entertainment but also the enormous growth it anticipates in the use of game technology for serious purposes, such as training nurses in triage, performing physical therapy or running drone aircraft.
In some cases, new college programs spring forth from profound changes in an existing field. David Daniels, assistant professor and director of fire science programs at Anna Maria College in Paxton, said the college created a new online program in emergency medical services administration in part as a response to ongoing changes in the nation's fire departments. Since 1980, he said, fires have decreased 55 percent, while demand for emergency medical services has jumped 87 percent since 1986.
"More and more of what traditional fire departments do is provide pre-hospital care," he said.
The new program, which is aimed at students around the country, offers a way to help build a strong first line of defense against the growing health problems facing an aging population.
Anna Maria is also upping its business focus with a new business school and a host of specialized MBA programs launched this year, as well as undergraduate business programs in financial services and non-profit management.
"We're finding, and our experience is telling us, that students are looking not just for a general business degree anymore," said Lloyd O. Hamm Jr., chief operating officer and dean of the business school. "They're looking for concentrations that can lead to employment."
Hamm, a former Eastern Bank executive, said he has used his connections in the financial services industry to find out what banks are looking for in new employees. He said he has also been working with local chambers of commerce to check the pulse of other fields, building advisory boards for various focus areas and using data to find out what skills are in demand.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute relies extensively on advisory groups to help develop new programs, according to Rachel LeBlanc, director of corporate and professional education. She said WPI makes it a point to include high-level people in various industries who have a long view of their firms' needs.
"The goal of having them on our advisory board is to really try to get that future projection," she said.
Recently, LeBlanc said, the university created a systems engineering program after seeing a demand for it in such industries as defense and high tech.
Gail Carberry, president of Worcester's Quinsigamond Community College (QCC) said the school uses a variety of data sources, as well as conversations with industry leaders, to determine how to keep its curriculum current.
"Starting up a new program is an expensive proposition in terms of hiring faculty, and in particular, if there are any specific equipment needs, so we can't do it helter skelter," Carberry said. "We do significant research before we take a step."
Of course, no matter how many jobs there are in an industry, a program will only be successful if it can also attract students. Carberry said that was an issue a few years ago when QCC launched a program in the insurance field at the request of some local insurance companies. "We had some difficulty initially filling that curriculum," she said.
She said the school used an internal marketing campaign to spread information about the jobs available in insurance and found that students were more interested in the program once they understood the career possibilities. The school's advising process also helps students tailor their studies to both their interests and aptitudes and the lines of work where they're most likely to find jobs.
Carberry said the marketing effort for some programs plays to students' interests. For example, some young people who might never have considered working in information technology are drawn to the computer forensics program because of the popularity of TV shows like CSI, she said.
"All you have to say is the word 'forensics' and students' eyes light up," she said. "There was a time when everything was about hospitals — every program on TV was about hospitals — now it's all about crime."
If college freshmen are not always driven by data in looking at potential careers, even professionals whose jobs involve thinking about the future of work can find it hard to predict where workforce needs will be. Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone, who has helped community colleges and vocational high schools across the state develop modern manufacturing programs, said many job projections are based simply on extending current trends.
"One of the things that I have been urging for a number of years is to do an in-depth study on what the commonwealth will be needing, industry by industry, so that we are using our community colleges and our vocational schools to prepare a number of workers for the occupations that will be in high demand," he said.
Bluestone said such a project could create new projections each year, based on surveys and interviews with industry leaders and using sophisticated economic modeling tools. The report could mirror the Annual Housing Report Card for Greater Boston that Bluestone helps produce each year for the real estate industry.
"Developers are listening to us; mayors are listening to us," he said. "We should be doing exactly the same thing when it comes to industry and occupation."
Regardless of the precise areas poised for growth, Bluestone and others agree that the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are where many growing occupations lie. Yet by the time students reach college, many of them have lost interest in those areas.
"Mathematics is a barrier to students, not just here at Quinsigamond but at many colleges," Carberry said.
Local colleges have responded to that by working with Central Massachusetts' K-12 school systems to get younger students interested in STEM. For instance, Quinsigamond runs math boot camps for high school students, and WPI works with students at Worcester-area schools and hosts the Mass Academy of Math and Science, a public school on the college campus that enrolls about 100 high school juniors and seniors.
Dan Magazu, a spokesman for Framingham State University, said his school is expanding its IT programs with a new concentration in web and mobile computing and new opportunities for students to get real-world computer science experience, But he said preparing students to handle college-level technical classes can be a challenge. To help build a pipeline for future workers, FSU offers a master's program in STEM education aimed at current teachers. Magazu said one reason students sometimes have difficulty with the area is that teachers aren't fluent in the subjects.
"The more comfortable they are, the more students will get engaged in those subjects early on," he said.
(Emily Micucci of the WBJ staff contributed to this report.)