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Plotting your dream career? Discover the 16 career clusters and pathways that can help you move closer to your ideal job.
Making plans for your future career can feel revitalizing, but it can be easy to get overwhelmed when considering all the career options available. While plenty of choice is a great thing, making career decisions can sometimes feel like being lost in a maze and wondering which way to turn.
Career clusters are one way to find a route through this tangled web of potential jobs. Grouping (or clustering) careers together, then providing different pathways within each career cluster, can help you make decisions that are right for you and your long-term career.
So, what are the 16 career clusters and how can they help you choose your ideal career path? In this article, we’ll explore:
What are career clusters?
The 16 career clusters and pathways, with examples of jobs.
The National Career Clusters Framework is made up of 16 career clusters which group careers into categories based on broad industry areas, enabling you to explore career options that suit your skills and interests. Within the 16 clusters are 79 individual pathways that you can follow and a variety of careers to pursue. If you’re wondering where your work might take you next, having a good understanding of the clusters and pathways can help you set course for your ideal career.
Six career fields represent the broad sectors of the job market. Within each field there are career clusters, which group together careers requiring the same knowledge and skills. Here’s a breakdown of the 16 career clusters, with example careers, and details of the individual pathways you can follow.
If you’re outdoorsy, enjoy working with animals, and passionate about the environment, then this could be the career field for you. Only one cluster falls under this field, with seven different pathways:
1. Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources
Careers are focused on the creation of agricultural products, so could involve working in farming, fishing, and forestry, or being based in a clinic or laboratory as a scientist, engineer, or veterinarian. Average salary ranges from $29,680 (farmworker) to $137,900 (natural science manager).
Plant Systems is the pathway offering the largest number of job openings according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). This pathway involves growing crops, studying plants, and protecting the environment in roles such as nutritional analyst or genetic engineer. Other pathways include Agribusiness Systems, Animal Systems, Environmental Service Systems, Food Products and Processing Systems, Natural Resources Systems, and Power/Structure and Technical Systems.
Creative types will be drawn to this career field, where clusters are based around arts, technology, and communications:
2. Arts, A/V Technology, and Communications
One way to get a foot in the door is to complete studies in the fields of drama, media, film, or sound engineering. Education requirements and salary can range from floral designers ($29,880) with a high school diploma to art directors holding a bachelor’s degree and over five years’ experience ($100,890).
A/V Technology and Film is a popular pathway. Everything audio-visual falls under this umbrella, including design, manufacture, sale, and repair of AV equipment as well as professionals who edit film and video. This cluster rates highly in terms of job openings, with graphic designers in particular demand. A few other pathways are Performing Arts, Printing Technology, Telecommunications and Journalism/Broadcasting.
3. Information Technology
Occupations revolve around the design, development, support, and management of hardware, software, multimedia, and system integration services. Most job openings require a bachelor’s degree and salary can range from computer support specialists ($57,910) to software developers ($109,020).
If your expertise lies in programming and software development then you’re in demand—almost half of all job openings are assigned to this cluster as per projections from BLS. The other pathways are Network Systems, Information Support and Services, and Web/Digital Communication.
The scope in this career cluster is vast, with many opportunities for business-minded individuals across diverse industries. Here are the four clusters and associated pathways:
4. Business Management and Administration
Education requirements in this cluster vary, from a high school diploma to specialist qualifications. Salary will follow this wide range and scope, with stock clerks averaging $37,870 annual salary and top executives such as CEOs averaging $100,090 annual salary.
Administrative Support is a broad pathway. Customer service representatives, office clerks, and executive assistants are ranked in this order as having the largest projected job openings according to the BLS. Others include Business Information Management, General Management, HR Management, and Operations Management.
Talented number-crunchers who love everything finance fall under this umbrella. Whether you’re delivering financial advice, managing financial/management accounts, providing banking or insurance services, or delivering insightful input on securities and investments, this could be your niche cluster. Average salary can range from $36,310 for bank tellers to $131,710 for financial managers.
Accountants and auditors rate as the top occupation in terms of job openings in the cluster according to the BLS, so if your strengths lie in the management and analysis of financial information then this path could offer plenty of opportunities. In this cluster you’ll also find Banking Services, Business Finance, Insurance, and Securities and Investments.
6. Hospitality and Tourism
If you’re a social butterfly with a passion for travel, then this could prove a good match. You may be working in a hotel, restaurant or bar, or supporting travelers at an airport or as a tour guide. Entry-level roles will typically be looking for a high school diploma, but more advanced roles may require relevant bachelor’s degrees and strong language capabilities. Salary can range from F&B servers ($25,980) to hotel managers ($59,430).
Restaurants and Food/Beverage Services is the most popular pathway. From bakers and baristas to cooks and chefs, this pathway has the highest number of projected job openings (BLS). This cluster also includes Lodging, Travel and Tourism, and Recreation, Amusements, and Attractions.
Career clusters and pathways are organized around broad industry or economic areas, so you can get the same job in more than one cluster. For example, you could be an accountant in the Business Management and Administration pathway or the Government and Public Administration pathway. The best option is to look at careers based on your interests first, then select a cluster and pathway.
7. Marketing, Sales, and Service
This cluster includes occupations as marketing specialists, sales associates, real estate agents, cashiers, market research analysts, and sales engineers. Education can vary from a high school diploma for a cashier role with average salary of $27,260, to a bachelor’s degree and related work experience for a marketing manager, with average salary of $133,380.
Professional Sales is a popular pathway here. Selling goods and services to businesses and consumers has the projected highest number of job openings, with retail sales ranked highest. In addition, you’ll find Marketing Communications, Marketing Management, Marketing Research, and Merchandising.
This career field attracts individuals who are realistic, investigative, and enterprising, with four different clusters and many pathway options:
8. Architecture and Construction
Encompassing everything construction, career paths are focused on the design, management, building, and maintenance of structures. Educational skills will vary, from specific qualifications in architecture and construction management (construction manager avg. salary $98,890), to on-the-job training in various trades (grounds maintenance avg. salary $35,460).
Construction offers a wide range of opportunities. Careers span across construction laborers, inspectors, plumbers, and landscape architects. BLS projects that the majority of job openings will fall under this pathway, with laborers topping the chart. Other pathways include Design/Pre-construction and Maintenance/Operations.
Manufacturing workers produce products which we use in our everyday lives so they are always in demand. If you’re hands-on with great technical skills, then a career in manufacturing could be the right path. Education requirements will vary, but many job openings require a high school diploma and some level of on-the-job-training. Salaries can range from machine operators $29,690 to industrial engineers $95,300.
Maintenance, Installation, and Repair is the pathway with the largest projected job openings. Employers are always on the lookout for maintenance and repair workers who can prevent and resolve issues with machinery, tools, and equipment to ensure smooth operations. This cluster also spans Production, Quality Assurance, Manufacturing Production Process Development, Logistics and Inventory Control, and Health, Safety, and Environmental Assurance.
10. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
The STEM cluster offers the opportunity of an exciting, rewarding, and dynamic career path. Occupations are involved in scientific research and development or providing professional and technical services. The majority of careers in this cluster require a bachelor’s degree or higher degree level, with average salaries ranging from research assistants $49,720 to petroleum engineers $130,850.
There are two main pathways here. Engineering and Technology has a core focus on advanced mathematics, life and physical sciences, and technology, with mechanical engineers in particular demand. The other career path is Science and Mathematics.
11. Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics
This career cluster is involved in the movement of people and products via a range of transportation services (road, rail, air, and/or water). Education and average salary will vary, from passenger vehicle drivers requiring a high school diploma ($37,540) to airline and commercial pilots requiring a bachelor’s degree and certified flight training ($134,630).
The most popular pathway that will get you on the move in terms of job openings is Transportation Operations. Roles involve physically driving or piloting vehicles as well as the all-important behind the scenes support staff who ensure safe and timely transportation of cargo. The other pathways are Sales and Service, Logistics Planning and Management Services, Facility and Mobile Equipment Maintenance, Warehousing and Distribution Center Operations, Health/Safety/Environmental Management, and Transportation Systems/Infrastructure Planning, Management, and Regulation.
If you’re the type of person who loves helping others, then the health science cluster could be worth investigating further:
12. Health Science
Education and training are an important component in this cluster, with most roles requiring specialist training or a professional degree, as well as internships, residency, and licenses for more senior-level roles. Salary can range from home health aides ($29,430) to physicians ($208,000+).
Those in the Therapeutic Services pathway provide direct care, treatment, counseling, and/or health education to patients. Registered nurses rank highest in terms of projected job openings, followed by nursing assistants, home health aides, licensed nurses, and medical assistants. Other pathways are Support Services, Health Informatics, Diagnostic Services, and Biotechnology Research and Development
The human services cluster is ideally suited to individuals with compassion, empathy, and a people-first outlook. Here are the final four clusters and pathways for you to consider:
13. Education and Training
If education and making a positive impact on people’s lives inspires you, then this career cluster could be the one for you. Teachers have a huge influence on students' lives, trainers help people progress in their careers, and principals inspire an outstanding learning environment. Most occupations require a bachelor’s or higher degree, with average salary ranging from teaching assistants ($29,360) to postsecondary teachers ($79,640).
Teaching and training is the pathway that has the most number of job openings, with elementary school teachers ranking highest. The others are Professional Support Services and Administration/Administrative Support.
14. Government and Public Administration
Government and public administration workers are involved in passing and enforcing laws, ensuring safety, and providing public services at the public, state, and federal level. This could range from working as a legislator ($37,270) to a compliance officer ($81,410). Roles in the military also fall under this cluster. If you respect law and order, have excellent critical-thinking skills, and have an interest in politics, this could be perfect for you.
Governance ranks high in terms of the number of job openings. These careers are focused on making and executing public policy, including government officials and support staff. The other pathways are Foreign Service, National Security, Planning, Regulation, Revenue/Taxation, and Public Management and Administration.
15. Human Services
Roles in this cluster are targeted on meeting human needs and can cross a diverse spectrum, from providing personal care and consumer services to mental health and community services. Salary is wide-ranging, from hair shampooers working in a salon ($24,440) through to qualified psychologists ($81,040).
Early Childhood Development and Services is a popular pathway. This includes teaching and nurturing infants and children in a variety of settings, with childcare workers ranking as one of the top professions to have the most job openings (BLS). Other pathways include Consumer Services, Personal Care Services, Family/Community Services, and Counseling and Mental Health Services.
16. Law, Public Safety, Corrections, and Security
In this cluster, careers are focused on protecting life and property, enforcing laws, or providing legal services. If you remain calm under pressure and have a strong sense of community, then this cluster could be an ideal fit. Education and salary will vary according to occupation, ranging from on-the-job-training as a lifeguard ($25,630) to a doctoral or professional degree plus experience as a judge ($128,710).
Security and Protective Services is the pathway with the highest projected number of job openings according to BLS research, with security guards ranking highest. Other pathways include Legal Services, Law Enforcement Services, Correction Services, and Emergency/Fire Management Services.
If you’re looking to take charge of your career journey, check out Career.io’s Job Search tool that will help you create a clear roadmap and optimize your job search efforts.
Career clusters can help you learn more about your career options, by grouping careers into clusters of occupations and industries.
Within each cluster are specific pathways that you can follow. For example, you may be keen to pursue a career in the arts, with a particular talent for theater, so the performing arts pathway would be a great option.
Once you’ve identified a career cluster and potential pathway that sparks your interest, conduct plenty of research via career advisors/coaches, teachers, your network, and educational institutions to ensure you are on track for your ideal career.
Helen is an experienced content writer, with expertise in corporate law, business, sales, marketing and education. Prior to this, she worked in recruitment and human resources, so she has a strong sense of what recruiters are looking for in terms of a potential employee. Helen loves exploring new places, writing blogs of her travel across Europe and enjoying trips to the US, Thailand and the Middle East. She is an avid reader of fiction, poetry, self-help books and factual content and also enjoys creative writing in her spare time, including poetry and children’s fiction.