Job opportunities for faculty are "better now than they have been for many years," says Tina Shelley, supervisory economist at the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Shelley and colleagues helped produce the BLS's Occupational Outlook Handbook 2000-01 , which--among other things--projects that employment of college and university faculty will increase faster than average over the coming years, from 865,000 positions in 1998 to 1,061,000 in 2008.

The projected 22% boost in postsecondary teaching jobs is driven by expected jumps in both undergraduate enrollment and faculty retirement. College enrollments, estimated by the BLS to uptick by 10%, from 14.6 million in 1998 to 16.1 million in 2008, are on the rise because the traditional college-age (18 to 24) population is growing and more people are attending college, if only part-time, according to the BLS.

And, because of the current faculty age structure, the number of retiring professors should "increase dramatically" over the next 5 to 10 years if current retirement patterns hold, states Mark Regets, senior analyst at the National Science Foundation's Division of Science Resource Studies.

The rate at which professors retire normally hovers around 2% per year, but that rate is set to accelerate to a "solid" 3%, according to Edwin Goldin, director of career services at the American Institute of Physics. And, although he does not anticipate "a gush" of new positions, Goldin says academic job prospects for physicists are "looking better" than they have in recent lean years--not only because of faculty retirement but also because fewer physicists are choosing to remain in the ivory tower, meaning less competition for openings. Goldin reports that he now hears academic search committees complaining about receiving only 30 or 40 applications for jobs that several years ago would have drawn a few hundred.

Although the BLS report cautions that applicants for full-time college faculty positions will still face "keen competition," job prospects should improve, especially in fields such as computer science and engineering, in which attractive nonacademic job opportunities are available.

The report also addresses a current controversy within the academic community: the hiring of adjunct faculty over full-time, tenure-track faculty. If the current trend of reduced government funding for higher education continues, the BLS predicts that the proportion of adjunct or part-time faculty will continue to swell. The nature of the tenure-track position is also expected to change as financial constraints force institutions to hire even full-time faculty on limited contracts.

An added consideration is the inherent employment-enrollment-employment feedback loop: As the BLS report points out, good job prospects in a field like computer science result in higher student enrollments and more faculty positions, whereas poor job prospects, such as in history in recent years, discourage students and reduce demand for faculty.

The BLS publishes a new set of forecasts every 2 years, so stay tuned for the 2000-2010 projections in the new edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook, due out in November 2001, according to Tina Shelley. But if you can't wait that long, don't worry. Setting aside aggregate employment projections for the word on the street, anecdotal reports filtering back to the BLS from its data hounds now on the trail lead Shelley to wax positive on the current faculty employment outlook by relating: "We're hearing that is opening up."