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COMPUTER ENGINEER Mark Haas, 35, senior software quality manager for Bell-Northern Research, the development arm of Northern Telecom, has the best career in America. Officially, a computer engineer develops and designs hardware and software, so the career's horizons figure to expand at something close to the speed of light.

Over the next 10 years, computer engineers' handiwork will be felt in every corner of the economy, from business software to video and computer games, from the microchips that trigger your car's air bags to the switching programs that will route old movies and fresh news down the information highway.

Talk about marketable skills: U.S. corporations will need about 447,000 computer engineers by the year 2005, more than twice the number in the country today.

The pay is not bad, either: Computer engineers with 10 years' experience typically pull down $70,000 a year, placing them in the top 6 percent of all U.S. full-time wage earners.

Prestige? According to a 1992 national study by the Chicago-based National Opinion Research Center, computer engineers rank on a par with psychologists, airline pilots and management consultants.

To find the top job contenders, we consulted Malcolm Cohen of the University of Minnesota, labor economist and author of the just-published "Labor Shortages: As America Approaches the Twenty-First Century" (University of Michigan, $37.50).

Cohen started with the 13,000 jobs recognized by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and then chopped that mammoth figure down by weeding out low-skill occupations and screening for fast growth and stability.

Compared with our previous rankings, this year we put greater weight on a job's sheer growth prospects. That emphasis cast some career trends into sharp relief. Among them:

Careers hitched to computers are sizzling hot.

Considering that microchips are now found everywhere, it's not surprising that four of our 50 fastest-growing positions were computer-related. Indeed, the only job to give computer engineer a run for first place was computer systems analyst: Its 10-year growth projection came to 110 percent, just shy of computer engineer's 112 percent. Systems analysts, who customize and maintain corporate computer operation, have hogged the winning position in Money magazine's past two surveys. But being No. 2 this year hasn't hurt: The average analyst earns $53,000, finishing in the top 10 percent of wage earners.

Computer repairer also made the top 50 (No. 18) as it did in 1992 and 1994, while computer programmer (No. 44) appears for the third consecutive year.

Health care gets competitive.

Medicine has provided opportunity for skilled workers from physical therapists (No. 3) to pharmacists (No. 50) since we began ranking careers in 1992. But while the field is still hot -- accounting for an amazing 16 professions on our list of 50 -- the shift toward managed care is creating a new set of winners. Boom occupations will be tied to advances in medical technology or to the aging population.

Radiologic technologists, for example, who administer radiation therapy to cancer patients, copped No. 6, with an expected job growth of 63 percent. Respiratory therapists, who treat the elderly and other patients with lung disease, ranked No. 13, with a growth of 49 percent.

Some of the fastest-growing jobs will be the least secure.

Jobs with reputations for high-risk, shaky security and irregular work -- but big possible payoffs -- moved up the list this year. Among them are producer, director, actor and other entertainers (No. 9), bread and pastry bakers (No. 15) and restaurant cooks (No. 17).

Five jobs for the money.

To get one of these five top-paying jobs, you need years of specialized education (salaries reflect roughly 10 years' experience).

1. Physician or surgeon ($156,000/$200,000).

2. Airline pilot ($95,794).

3. Computer engineer ($70,000).

4. Management consultant ($60,000).

5. Lawyer ($58,500).

Five jobs for fast tracks.

For career builders in a hurry, these are the fastest-growing jobs over the next five years.

1. Computer engineer.

2. Systems analyst.

3. Physical therapist.

4. Radiologic technologist or technician.

5. Speech pathologist/audiologist.

Five jobs best for security.

These jobs ranked on every Money magazine survey since '92 in the most satisfying, pay or growth categories.

1. Systems analyst.

2. Physical therapist.

3. Psychologist.

4. Management consultant.

5. Registered nurse.

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