Why "Recession-Proof" Jobs Are a Myth

Certain skills will transcend a recession, but job stability will remain unpredictable.

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When President Obama proposed a federal pay freeze recently, there must have been quite a few civil servants who thought, "Whoa! This isn't supposed to happen!"

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In private firms, pay freezes have become as common as Post-It notes. But government jobs, you'll recall, are supposed to be "recession-proof" and far less susceptible to the strains of a weak economy. The government has never said that, exactly, but lots of career experts have, and if the compact was never overt it was at least well understood: Government jobs tend to come with lower pay and prestige, but with benefits and job security that make up for it.

No longer. As with so many other things, many of the old assumptions about safe jobs and stable careers have been shattered by the grueling economic transformation we're still in the middle of. Yet the ubiquitous lists of best careers and recession-proof jobs continue to propagate the phony idea that some lines of work are immune to economic stress. Here are some of the careers recommended by outfits like CareerBuilder, Forbes, Time, HR World, and Associated Content, along with the more sobering reality:

Education. Conventional wisdom: Education is indispensable and most teachers get their paychecks from state or local governments, which are less susceptible to recessions than private industry. Plus, most teachers belong to unions, which provide further protection against layoffs and pay cuts.

Reality: State and local governments are facing severe budget pressures and are starting to lay off teachers. Since 2008, for instance, the number of local teaching jobs has fallen by 157,000, according to the Labor Department. Plus, teachers' unions that refuse to accept pay and benefit cuts are increasingly seen as out of step with the rest of America, prompting a backlash in some areas that could lead to school consolidations and other recession-like moves.

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Military. Conventional wisdom: We're still fighting two wars, terrorism is ever-present, and Congress always supports the military.

Reality: The huge federal debt has to be cut somehow, and the military is one of the biggest targets. One prominent proposal calls for freezing military pay, cutting benefits, and outsourcing many military jobs to contractors. As for Congress, it tends to support big weapons programs more than spending on troops. Plus, the Iraq deployment is winding down and a drawdown in Afghanistan is scheduled to begin next summer.

Public safety. Conventional wisdom: Police, firefighter, and federal law enforcement jobs will be the last to be cut.

Reality: Maybe so, but governments have now reached that point. Police and fire departments are now subject to the same pressures as other local government agencies, and cuts in the federal workforce seem inevitable as well, with every agency likely to give up something. Overall, state and local governments have cut 260,000 jobs this year alone, with more cuts likely in 2011 and 2012.

Utilities. Conventional wisdom: Everybody needs to keep the lights on and heat the house, plus most utilities are regulated, which keeps prices stable and helps smooth out ups and downs.

Reality: It's true that everybody needs energy, but Americans have cut back on virtually everything, including gas, electric, and water. Labor Department data shows a net loss of about 4,000 jobs in this industry since 2008, with steeper cuts in traditional power plants and minor gains at nuclear facilities.

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Energy. Conventional wisdom: Energy is obviously a staple, so demand will stay strong in any economy, providing job security.

Reality: Energy is a volatile commodity subject to steep price swings. Energy demand has held up reasonably well over the last few years, with a net job increase in industries like oil and gas extraction. But anybody from Texas or Oklahoma can tell you that an energy bust can be brutal. And "green energy" remains a wild card that could flourish, taking jobs away from fossil-fuel industries, or peter out, leaving a bunch of shuttered startups where people were once hoping to find stable, high-paying jobs.

Accounting. Conventional wisdom: "Death and taxes are a sure thing," according to one job-advice site, which reasons that tough times ought to force companies and individuals to scour their finances more closely than usual, making more work for accountants.

Reality: There's a glut of unemployed accountants and bookkeepers right now, thanks to severe corporate cutbacks and weak revenue at small businesses. There are about 86,000 fewer accounting jobs now than there were three years ago.

Computers. Conventional wisdom: Companies are increasingly replacing people with processors, with no end in sight to the technology revolution.

Reality: With intense pressure to cut costs at most companies, lower-level IT jobs are being shipped overseas in droves; any job that can be done remotely by a lower-paid worker in India probably will be. The safer jobs involve systems engineering and proprietary software work, which requires a high degree of skill and tireless attention to new technology.

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Sales reps. Conventional wisdom: In a downturn, companies are likely to hold onto the sales reps who bring in desperately needed new business, while cutting support functions and other jobs that don't contribute to the bottom line.

Reality: Companies don't always do what's rational, and besides, sales reps don't add to the bottom line when potential customers hunker down and refuse to spend money. No wonder the economy has lost more than 400,000 sales jobs since 2008.

Federal government. Conventional wisdom: Uncle Sam doesn't have to please shareholders or customers, so it doesn't face the same budget pressures as private companies. Plus, many government jobs have union protection.

Reality: The federal government has been spending far more than it takes in for a decade, with the national debt ballooning and the day of reckoning drawing near. Voters have now made it clear they want a smaller government, and cutbacks in the federal workforce seem inevitable. One harbinger of coming cuts is the U.S. Postal Service, once thought to be recession-proof itself; its labor force has shrunk by 137,000 jobs since 2008.

To be fair to the job-advice sites guiding workers toward precarious fields, many of their recession-proof lists predate the 2007-2009 recession that proved them wrong. And a number of them are derived from a 2008 book that could not have anticipated the ravages of a downturn that destroyed more than 8 million jobs. Still, many of those outdated lists pop up high on a Google search for "recession-proof jobs," and readers don't always check the date when doing research on careers.

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Practically every list of recession-proof careers also includes a variety of medical jobs, from nurses and doctors to technicians and home health aides. That's valid, since the aging of America's population makes it inevitable that more people will need health care. And sure enough, healthcare has gained jobs in practically every sector over the last few years, despite the recession. But even in healthcare there are a lot of variables that could make jobs less appealing down the road. As more people flee declining industries and flock toward the few that are growing, a glut of qualified workers can develop, driving down pay and benefits. Healthcare reform could produce unexpected changes that make some jobs safer than others. And the complexity of healthcare, combined with relentless pressure to lower costs, is already leading doctors and other caregivers to report high levels of stress and low levels of satisfaction.

It might be distressing to think that no job is safe from recession, but in a fast-changing economy where old industries are displaced by new ones faster than ever, focusing on safety and stability may be the wrong way to pursue a rewarding career. There's mounting evidence that adaptable skills, creativity, and lifelong learning are the new determinants of success, with the biggest rewards going to people with multidisciplinary experience who can apply lessons learned in one field to another and accept the idea that they're likely to have two, three, or four careers, not just one. Cathy Farley of consulting firm Accenture says that as companies recover from the recession and start to hire again, they'll build a more agile workforce capable of responding to a wider variety of challenges. "Companies will organize themselves more flexibly," she says. "They'll look for people with the ability to adapt to different types of work."

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Companies built around a fixed set of skills, meanwhile, may not be hiring for a long time. Industries like manufacturing, construction, telecommunications, and even insurance are still losing jobs, more than a year after the recession officially ended, and many of those lost jobs may never return. A lot of workers in those fields, naturally, are trying to break into different lines of work that offer more stability. But the first move ought to be recession-proofing yourself, by building skills that will transcend the inevitable lurches in the economy. That way, you won't be caught flat-footed when the next pay freeze or technological transformation comes along.

Twitter: @rickjnewman