With the highest unemployment rate in nearly 30 years (9.5%) and a lingering recession, an increasing number of laid-off workers are competing for a dwindling number of jobs. Employment options seem bleak, and in some professions, they are. But for students entering college and trade schools this fall, there are some fields that hold much more future promise than others. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are several fields that will virtually guarantee a job for those graduating over the next few years. (For background reading, see Invest In Yourself With A College Education.)

We scoured the OOH report and found a surprisingly long list of careers that have both:

  1. Much faster-than-average employment projections, meaning that employment opportunities are projected to grow by more than 21%, and
  2. Excellent job opportunities, meaning that there will be more job openings than job seekers.

If you're a high school grad looking to choose a major, or a seasoned worker looking to upgrade your skills, read on for some of the most promising career fields.

Health Services
With an aging baby boomer population, it should come as no surprise that seven of the 20 fastest-growing occupations are healthcare related. In fact, three of every 10 new jobs created in the U.S. economy by 2014 will be in healthcare services. But even in the promising healthcare field, there are a few key careers that really stand out. (For more jobs in health services, see 6 Hot Careers With Lots Of Jobs.)

  1. Home Health Aide
    • Job Duties: Help elderly, disabled or infirmed patients remain at home by providing basic clinical care, including checking basic vital signs (blood pressure, pulse, respiration, temperature), assisting with prescribed exercise, helping patients transfer positions and maintaining personal grooming.
    • Required Education: On-the-job training by registered nurses (RNs), licensed nurse practitioners (LPNs) or experienced aides. A competency evaluation may also be required.
    • Pay: Median hourly earnings of $9.34
  2. Medical Assistant
    • Job Duties: Perform basic clinical and clerical tasks such as scheduling appointments, filing insurance claims, taking medical histories from patients and drawing lab samples.
    • Required Education: One year postsecondary medical assistant program through a vocational technology high school or community/junior college or a two-year associate degree. Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) certification through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) is required by some employers. Students who have passed the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) exam through a local community college typically command the highest salaries for this position.
    • Pay: Median annual salary of $26,290
  3. Physician Assistant (PA)
    • Job Duties: Practice medicine under a doctor's or surgeon's supervision. Physician assistants ease the patient load burden for their employers by providing diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive care services such as examining and treating patients, interpreting lab results, treating minor injuries and counseling patients.
    • Required Education: Completion of a two-year accredited PA program offered through a medical school, hospital or four-year college.
    • Pay: Median annual salary of $74,980

The largest states offer the most healthcare jobs, so if you're looking for work in healthcare and you can't find a position in your area, you should concentrate your job search in California, New York, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Information Technology (IT)
Thomas Watson was clearly not an oracle. In 1943, the then-Chairman of IBM (NYSE:IBM) was quoted as saying, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

The rapid growth in information technology would have stunned Watson, and it's projected to continue unabated. Job openings in computer systems design and related services are on track to grow by nearly 40% as businesses become increasingly complex. The best IT employment opportunities over the next few years include:

  1. Network System and Data Communications Analyst
    • Job Duties: Design, test and evaluate local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs), intranets and other corporate or organizational communications systems.
    • Required Education: A bachelor's degree in computer science, information science or management information systems (MIS), or an MBA with a concentration in information systems. (For related reading, see Business Grads, Land Your Dream Job.)
    • Pay: Median annual salary of $64,600
  2. Computer Software Engineer and Application Designer
    • Job Duties: Design, develop, test and refine computer software and systems including games, word processing and business applications, operating systems, and network distribution.
    • Required Education: A bachelor's degree in computer science or software engineering, or a master's degree in math or systems design.
    • Pay: Median annual salary of $79,780

Other Fields
If you're not jumping at the chance to land a job in healthcare or IT, don't fret. There are still plenty of other fields that will need workers. Check out these opportunities:

  1. Environmental Science and Protection Technician
    • Job Duties: Perform lab and field tests to monitor environmental resources and determine the nature and sources of pollution.
    • Required Education: Minimum of a two-year associate's degree in applied science or science-related technology is required but a bachelor's degree in science, botany or another science-related field is preferred.
    • Pay: Median hourly earnings of $18.30
  2. Water and Liquid Waste Treatment Plant and Systems Operator
    • Job Duties: Control pumps, valves and other equipment to ensure wastewater is correctly treated. Read, interpret and adjust equipment, control chemical-feeding devices, take water or wastewater samples, perform lab analyses, measure water quality, schedule and record maintenance activities and produce reports.
    • Required Education: A minimum of a high school degree and on-the-job training; a two-year associate's degree or one-year certificate in water quality and wastewater treatment technology is preferred.
    • Pay: Median annual earnings of $36,070
  3. Court Reporter
    • Job Duties: Create verbatim transcripts of speeches, conversations, legal proceedings, meetings or other judicial proceedings.
    • Required Education: Training through a postsecondary vocational and technical school or college. The National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) has certified 70 programs nationwide.
    • Pay: Median annual salary of $45,610
  4. Welder
    • Job Duties: Operating machinery and equipment to apply heat to metal and bond piece such as pipes in pipelines, power plants, and refineries and beam for buildings, bridges and other structures.
    • Required Education: Requirements vary, but highly skilled jobs (commanding higher salaries) require postsecondary work through a vocational-technical institute, community college or private welding school.
    • Pay: Median hourly earnings of $14.90
  5. Veterinary Technologist or Technician
    • Job Duties: Perform clinical work under supervision of a licensed veterinarian, including running medical tests, diagnosing medical conditions, preparing tissue samples, analyzing test and lab work, recording patients' case histories, and providing specialized nursing care.
    • Required Education: A minimum of a two-year associate's degree from an American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)-accredited community college program in veterinary technology or laboratory animal science, but preferably a four-year bachelor's degree in veterinary technology. State credentialing is also required.
    • Pay: Median hourly earnings of $12.88

The unemployment rate may be high, but that doesn't mean you need to sit on the sidelines. Getting trained for an in-demand career will help make your job search easier and your employment more stable. So, what are you waiting for?