Anthony Bolante  /  Reuters file
They may not be among the highest paying professions, but cooks, waiters and waitresses will be in high demand during the next decade, according to a new government report.
By Martin Wolk Executive business editor
updated 3/10/2004 5:40:26 PM ET 2004-03-10T22:40:26

The economy has shed more than 2.3 million jobs over the past three years, but the news is not all bad for people like Paul Avery. As president of Outback Steakhouse Inc., Avery is looking to hire thousands of cooks, waiters and managers this year alone for the company’s 1,000 restaurants, and he is finding a plentiful pool of solid job candidates.

On average Outback opens two restaurants a week somewhere in the United States and might get anywhere from 800 to 3,000 applicants for the 90 available positions at each new outlet.

“Some communities and regions are more challenging than others, but there is never a lack of quality folks knocking on the door and coming in, particularly after the late ‘90s when the labor force was very constricted,” Avery said in an interview.  “We didn’t have those kinds of excess staff to select from.”

Just a few years ago, as the unemployment rate fell to a 30-year low of 3.8 percent,  some competing restaurants offered hourly wages that were 40 percent higher, putting pressure on Outback and making it harder to offer the low menu prices that attract customers to the company’s concept restaurants, Avery said.

That type of wage inflation is no longer a problem, Avery said, although company executives believe they offer an attractive package of wages, benefits and a corporate culture that includes opportunities for advancement.

The job market might wax and wane, but demand is likely to remain high over the next decade for workers in food service, health care and teaching, according to new projections from the Labor Department. On the other hand now is probably not the best time to become a farmer, typist or sewing machine operator, according to the just-published Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Professional occupations, which typically require some college education, are expected to offer the most growth from 2002 to 2012, led by health care, education and computer work, according to the handbook, based on projections that were updated for the first time in two years.

More than 600,000 new positions will be created for registered nurses, more than any other single occupation, as hospitals, doctor’s offices and urgent care centers expand to meet the needs of an aging population. The size of the nation’s nursing corps is expected to rise 27 percent to 2.9 million, far faster than the overall 15 percent growth expected in the work force.

More than 600,000 new positions also are expected to be created for postsecondary teachers, including community college instructors and university professors. That is growth of 38 percent, largely reflecting a surge in the population of 18-to-24-year-olds caused by the “echo boom”  -- children of baby-boomers -- and immigration.

In addition, a growing percentage of adults is expected to seek some education beyond high school, said John Toller, a human resources official at the University of Michigan. In 1998, for example, 48 percent of the nation’s college-age population was enrolled in school, up from 43 percent in 1990, according to the Census Bureau. And analysts predict older adults increasingly will return to college for advanced education or retraining.

“It’s hard to tell exactly where that growth is going to show up, but growth of the U.S. economy is linked to the ability of our population to have higher skill sets,” said Toller, past president of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Major Market Indices

While education is at a premium, service occupations, which generally require less than a college education, also are expected to see stronger-than-average growth of more than 20 percent over the 10-year period. Jobs will be most plentiful for waiters, waitresses and food prep workers, including fast-food counter staff, according to the study. A high turnover rate is expected to result in more than 5.6 million job openings over the next decade, although only 1.6 million jobs actually will be added in food preparation and serving.

The projections in the handbook represent an extension of recent trends. While the economy has lost jobs in recent years, full-service restaurants for example, have added jobs steadily, rising to 4 million jobs in January from 3.7 million three years earlier. Similarly hospitals have added 300,000 jobs, and colleges have added about 150,000 jobs.

At the same time manufacturing has lost 2.8 million jobs over the past three years, and while the sector eventually is expected to stabilize it will  continue to shrink in importance as an employer.

“Production occupations,” which include electrical equipment assemblers, metal workers and apparel makers, are expected to grow by only 3 percent over the next decade according to the government projections. Office workers, including clerks, secretaries and data entry operators, also are expected to see sluggish demand due to increased automation, according to an analysis by economists with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Other occupations expected to see rapid growth include medical assistants, network analysts, computer software engineers and fitness trainers. The fastest wage growth is expected in the software, management consulting and elderly care industries.

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