Nobody’s really talking about this, and that’s why we have to do it here. We’re overdue for a recession. There I said it. The stock market has been straight up like a rocket for eight years, housing prices have recovered and are pressing higher in many major markets, the official unemployment rate is well below 5%, and debt of all stripes is up into record territory. We also shouldn’t ignore the way healthcare is eating away at the economy. With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the careers most likely to survive an uncertain future.
I’m using the term uncertain times because it’s impossible to know how things will play out in the future. A few days ago we discussed how technology is eliminating jobs, but it’s very likely that a bad economy will accelerate that process. We need to be prepared for anything.
One possibility is that we can enter into an economic decline that’s never officially acknowledged (or not acknowledged until well after the fact). Another possibility is that the next recession will just be a continuation of the last one (or is it two), since none of the root causes of the Financial Meltdown (and probably the Dotcom bust) were ever really fixed.
There’s also the possibility that things will get a lot worse than the last two downturns. That’s hardly a stretch since each recession seems to be worse than the one before it – likely because of all of the unfixed problems.
There’s no way to know exactly how things will go down. Certain career fields will outperform others. New career fields will open up, while others will disappear completely. Absent a crystal ball, all we can do is make an educated guess. If that at least gets us thinking about the possibilities, then we’re probably heading in the right direction.
So what are the careers most likely to survive an uncertain future?
Careers Representing Absolute Necessities
Certainly healthcare careers are the first to come to mind. But I think that’s a mixed bag. In a severe recession, when the number of people with health insurance will plummet, it’s likely that the number of medical tests ordered will decline. That could lead to layoffs for medical technicians. Nurses however are likely to be completely safe. Nurses are really the foundation of the entire health care industry, and can always find work somewhere.
I think it’s also safe to say that care providers will also continue to be in demand. As the population ages, there are many millions of people who will continue to need direct care. Since the field is open-ended, the possibility to find some kind of work in this area is an odds-on bet. At a minimum, in a deep depression, it should even be possible to find work in exchange for room and board and some pocket money.
Apart from healthcare, it’s hard to think of any careers that are absolutely certain anymore. But there are certain careers that are more safe than others. Being a teacher, a policeman or a fireman are relatively safe, but not absolutely safe either. During the Great Recession we were living in an upper-middle-class suburban community that was laying off teachers due to the decline in tax revenues. Still, I think most teachers will be safe.
That points to an important distinction. Teachers, police and fireman are employees of either county or municipal governments. But unlike the federal government, those agencies don’t have unlimited access to funds. There’s a limit to how much they can borrow, and they can’t print their way out of trouble. That means that they might lay people off in a bad economy, or may decide to replace them with low-cost contractors.
For example, in hard times communities have been known to sub-contract out police work (though a cop can always work for the subcontracting company, albeit at lower pay and benefits). Others merge with the police departments of other communities to cut positions. And many fire departments operate on a volunteer basis. In a difficult economy, even these jobs can become threatened.
There are also some of what you might call “off-the-wall” occupations that are likely to survive hard times. One I can think of is bartenders. I’ve observed that no matter how financially desperate a person’s situation is, they will always find money for beer and cigarettes. And while they may not go to a restaurant to buy a prepared meal, they will find their way to the bar. The pattern may be even more pronounced in a downturn, as people look to “self-medicate” their way out of their problems.
There are probably a few such fields that you can think of that are along the same line. Feel free to suggest some.
Nearly Any Kind of Repair Work
Repair fields, like electricians and plumbers, will always be in demand. That’s because, simply put, sooner or later everything breaks. Even if you don’t have much money, if the electricity goes out, or a pipe bursts, a house or apartment or commercial space will become uninhabitable. Very few people have the skills to do their own repairs. In a bad economy, the emphasis will be on repairing rather than replacing.
I think auto mechanics are the same category, though during the last recession, some auto repair shops were hurting, and even laying people off. A close friend of mine gave a good explanation for this. He suggested that many people were either doing their own repairs, or deferring routine maintenance. It makes sense, because whenever money is tight, maintenance is the first thing to go. Still, I think auto mechanics will be relatively safe. If nothing else, an unemployed mechanic can always find work as a backyard mechanic.
If you’re looking to make a career change, or if you’re advising a young person on a career choice, repair fields are a solid choice. Since everybody else is going to college to learn to do white-collar work, candidates for repair work are scarce. Even if you don’t do repair work as a main occupation, it can always make a rewarding side business. If I had a mind for repair work, this would be a route I would choose.
I’ve covered this topic in a series of articles in recent weeks, starting with The Gig Economy – Why It Might Be the Key to Your Future, but it’s well worth a recap here. In that article I described gig work as a money-making venture that falls short of being a full-time, permanent job with benefits. I’ve done a good bit of gig work over the years, and it’s how I survived the Financial Meltdown and my unceremonious departure from the mortgage business. For that reason I think it could be a career possibility now, but especially in the next downturn.
The strength of gig work is in it’s flexibility. You basically use the skills you have to follow the work wherever it’s being done. That’s an important point. Even in the worst economic conditions, work still needs to be done – somewhere. Gig work enables you to gravitate to where work needs to be done, rather than clinging to a situation where it isn’t.
When times get hard, employers need that kind of flexibility. Oftentimes, full-time workers will be laid off and replaced with gig workers. This can be done either through contract assignments, or through subbing out work to independent providers. It means that employers can hire or contract out work as needed, but avoid permanent salaries and benefits.
Gig work has actually been around throughout human history. But it became more pronounced and cohesive during the Great Recession, as both employers and workers scrambled to find ways to continue operating and earning money. What’s more, it’s continued to grow since that time. It’s a convenient work arrangement for employers, and even for many workers. But in order to make it work, you have to truly embrace it.
Gig work is common in the IT field, as well as throughout the Internet. Employers, small businesses and websites need virtual assistants, content writers, video producers, content editors, SEO assistance, online marketing and social media marketing, just to name a few of the opportunities,
But the truth is that there is gig work anywhere that there is work that needs to be done. Start by making a list of all of the skills that you have that might be turned into a source of income. That should include personal skills that can be beneficial to other people, even if you’ve never done them for pay.
Gig work isn’t as mysterious as you might think. I’ve written an article on how to do it, How to Find Work in the Gig Economy. Even if you don’t have a need to do it now, it could help to have a plan going forward, if you think that your job might be vulnerable. In facing an uncertain future, it’s always best to have a Plan B lined up.
Another important benefit of gig work is that it can often be turned into full-time self-employment, which is a nice lead into the next career field.
Many Kinds of Self-employment
Notice I didn’t say or imply all kinds of self-employment? That’s because it would be a gross exaggeration and completely inaccurate.
Actually, a lot of people do start businesses during downturns. They do it to replace lost jobs and careers. But that’s also part of the reason so many new business ventures don’t succeed. As the saying goes, timing is everything, and unless the business you’re launching is a growth industry even in (or because of) a downturn, there’s an extremely high likelihood it will fail.
The kind of business you launch will matter. There are certain business ideas that are almost cliché. For example, a lot of people think of restaurants, almost instinctively. That’ll be a consideration even if they have no experience in that business. But always remember that when economic fortunes turn negative, restaurants are one of the worst businesses hit.
Any kind of boutique business is also likely to be a casualty. A clothing boutique will almost certainly be a bad idea. So will a hair salon. That’s because when money is tight, people either cut their own hair or get it done by an unemployed friend, who lost her job when the local hair salon closed.
It’s much better if you do a deep analysis of your own particular skills and passions, and come up with a business idea that’s based on that analysis.
Also, always think outside-the-box. For example, a restaurant may be a bad idea in a recession, but a food truck could be a winner. That’s because the food truck is mobile, and can go to where the customers are – an office park, a factory, a government complex, the beach, a local fair, or a major construction site. Similarly, a clothing boutique may be a bad idea in a recession, but a clothing thrift shop could work well. Instead of opening a hair salon, consider operating a mobile hair cutting service, where you go to your customer’s homes or even places of employment (think of the referral potential on that one!).
Ted Turner once said ”Go to where the action is and throw yourself in the middle of it. The law of large numbers will work, and some of the wealth will start coming your way”.
That’s basically what I did with blogging, since back in 2009 blogging was an up-and-coming trend. There are a host of reasons why that was true, but I’m not going to go into that here. But suffice it to say that even in the worst of economic times, there are always growth areas that you can jump into.
For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, radio and movie houses were booming (while vaudeville theaters were closing in droves). The automobile industry was continuing to grow steadily, though not nearly as rapidly as it did in the 1920s. Meanwhile, skyscrapers were still being built in the large cities. Few people realize that the Empire State building, the tallest building in the world for the next 40 years, was completed in 1932. That was at the very bottom of the depression.
If you’re looking for ideas for a business, study the trends. Look for areas of growth. Some will be a continuation of trends from the most recent expansion. But some will spring up in response to a declining economy (which is really what I think was the primary driver with blogging, it was a place people could turn to for survival topics that the mainstream media didn’t or wouldn’t cover).
Creating an “Income Portfolio” to Survive an Uncertain Future
I purposely saved this category for last, since it will include some aspects of the other fields from above.
Sometimes the best careers are a combination of careers, particularly if full-time jobs that pay benefits and a living wage are in short supply. In a way, it’s really about creating your own career.
An income portfolio includes income from multiple sources. You may have a full-time job and a part-time business, or you may have a full-time business and a part-time job. You might also do gig work, in addition to a full-time job or a full-time business venture. Gig work itself usually includes various ongoing gigs. It can also include a part-time job, a business or gig work, in combination with either retirement income or investment earnings.
For example, for several years I was a triple income guy – blogger/accountant/freelance blog writer. I was earning advertising income from Out Of Your Rut, while working part-time in a small accounting firm, and writing articles for other blogs.
It sounds challenging, but I think most people could do it. The advantage is that you are never completely dependent upon one source of income. You may also find yourself earning more income from one source than from the others. At one time or other, one of the three gigs that I was working in was the primary source of my income, though the primary source for the longest time has definitely been, and still is, freelance blog writing.
If it doesn’t seem as if there’s one single way for you to earn a living wage, do some serious research on creating an income portfolio. It might get you through a rough time in an uncertain future, or could turn into your next career.
What are your career plans for the next recession? And also, do you have a Plan B in mind?