Recession-resistant careers

Even when the economy sours, the lucky workers in these fields are in demand.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stacey Chase
June 1, 2008


School is not just for the school-aged anymore, as lifelong learners take online courses and seek specialized training to keep up in fields like IT, medicine, and engineering. Also, with about one in four Americans enrolled in various educational institutions, the demand for instructors will stay high, boosted by accelerated teacher retirements and turnover.

In a struggling US economy - with gas and grocery prices adding up - being good with numbers might make the difference in getting, or keeping, a job. Math and science teachers in middle schools and high schools, in short supply at the start, have a good chance of weathering the generally bleak jobs outlook, particularly given that teaching has been historically recession-resistant. "There are always people who want to teach, but we're having trouble finding people who want to teach math and science," says Mary-Lou Breitborde, the associate dean of education at Salem State College. "Partly, that's the fault of not enough emphasis on math and science from an early age or not teaching it well." The problem is exacerbated by skilled mathematicians and scientists being heavily recruited for lucrative jobs in the IT world.

Other hard-to-fill positions in the education field include special education and English Language Learner teachers, along with administrators, school counselors, and teacher aides. Almost 42 percent of the 3,273 Massachusetts teachers working under waivers due to a shortage of licensed applicants in the 2005-06 school year were for special needs, according to the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "I don't really feel, like, nervous about my job disappearing . . . the class sizes are already pretty large," says 27-year-old Caitlin O'Loughlin of Medford, a math teacher at Revere High School for six years. "You can't have a school with four teachers, you know? I could be wrong."

If the nation is headed for a full-blown recession, teacher advocates and some economists worry a drop in state income and sales-tax revenues could mean serious budget belt-tightening for local school districts. "However, educators may survive this slowdown, as a growing number of retirements, high turnover, and increasing enrollment [nationally] make it necessary to replace existing teachers," explains John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

While Massachusetts's public school enrollment is projected to decline 6.5 percent through 2016, that same population is rising elsewhere in the country. So, prospective math and science teachers should study their geography lessons first. "Look to the Sun Belt," including highgrowth states like Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico, advises Jeri Bayer, director of education programs at Northern Essex Community College. In New England, urban enclaves and remote rural areas have the greatest need.

Dori Gilbert of Haverhill, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, hopes to earn her bachelor's degree in 2010 and teach high school physics. "I love seeing the light bulb come on," says the 49-year-old mother of eight. She adds that, as a woman, she wants "to help girls see that math and physics are not boys' subjects."

Middle and High School Teachers

SUBJECT MATTER SPECIALTIES mathematics or science

SALARY RANGE $37,560-$73,350 (middle school); $38,360-$76,100 (high school)

US EMPLOYMENT NUMBERS 658,000 in 2006, projected to be 732,000 in 2016 (middle school); 1,038,000 in 2006, projected to be 1,096,000 in 2016 (high school)

EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE bachelor's degree; public school teachers must be licensed


The need for national and cyber security is booming. Bank-card merchants must comply with increasing federal regulations, state privacy legislation, and industry standards. Security failures can be very painful for businesses; the theft of customers' personal data can result in lawsuits and nightmarish PR.

Whether protecting a company's data or protecting a country's borders, workers in the broad employment sector of security - from computer security specialists to US soldiers - will continue to be in demand, even as America sustains a heavy barrage of dismal economic news. Professionals who monitor networks for security breaches and respond to cyber attacks can have various job titles, from chief security officer to information security manager, or their duties can fall under overall IT tasks; they are often employed in-house in industries where sensitive information is available online, such as high tech and banking.

"People are sort of realizing now - because of high-profile cases - that security is not just something you can tack onto a business afterward; it's something you have to build your business around," says Chris Palmer, 30, spokesman for the League of Professional System Administrators, a trade group in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. "You lose people's credit-card information, and they're not going to come back."

Palmer's day job is as the IT manager at Gene Network Sciences in Cambridge, a biotech firm hat does computational-based pharmaceutical research. "The driver of information security jobs is not profit, it's risk," he adds, explaining why such jobs are more recession-resistant. "Even though profits might be stagnating for some companies, the risk of losing millions of dollars in cleanup costs, fraud, and potential lawsuits is still there - and increasing every day."

A different kind of security is needed on other fronts. The armed forces are feeling personnel strain and have stepped up military recruitment. Qualified Army enlistees are being offered signing bonuses of as much as $40,000. "In addition to the fact that there's an obvious need for soldiers," says Sophia Koropeckyj, an economist at Moody's, "a lot of the functions that the military used to do are outsourced to private companies - waste removal, food provision. There's the whole huge, huge field of defense outsourcing."

Other in-demand security workers include FBI or CIA agent, TSA security officer, private security guard, corrections officer, and border patrol agent.

And while guarding personal data may be a far cry from guarding one's country, those who do it play their own kind of war games. "We consider ourselves ethical hackers," says 31-year-old George Gal, founder of Virtual Security Research in Charlestown. "There are definitely cases where we find tons of sensitive information, and we're asking ourselves, 'How has this not been hacked before?'"

Computer Security Specialists

(part of network and computer systems administrators classification)

SALARY RANGE $50,420-$101,520

US EMPLOYMENT NUMBERS 309,000 in 2006, projected to be 393,000 in 2016

EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE bachelor's degree, although some companies will hire those with only practical experience and/or certification

Sources for salary range, US employment numbers, education/ experience, and recession-resistant reasons: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Massachusetts Teachers Association, Northern Essex Community College, Salem State College, The League of Professional System Administrators, American Academy of Environmental Engineers, New England Culinary Institute, and industry sources; salary ranges list 25th to 90th percentile and exclude the self-employed.


Renewable-energy manufacturing projects (such as solar and wind turbine) are creating new jobs; crumbling infrastructure ensures demand for environmental engineers; climate change is resulting in floods, droughts, and other woes that need solutions.

With oil prices at a historical high, the nation's lurch toward energy independence - along with the push for companies to be more eco-friendly - means all systems are green when it comes to employment in the energy/ environmental sector. "Energy is a major issue for the global economy, and jobs related to oil and gas, alternative and renewable energy, and even nuclear are likely to see strong growth," says John Challenger of outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. He adds: "More companies are going green as concerns about global warming expand globally. There will be a high demand for engineers and scientists to develop green technologies."

Environmental engineers - who should see much faster-than-average 26 percent employment growth by 2016 - develop solutions to environmental problems and often specialize in areas like recycling, solid-waste disposal, land management, and water and air pollution control.

Spurring demand for environmental engineers is the need to replace aging infrastructures, remediate environmental hazards, and respond to global climate change by developing green, low-energy designs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "I'm a strong believer in the Al Gore movement, that the human population is having a dramatic effect on the environment," says 46-year-old Jane Madden, an environmental engineer at CDM, a Cambridge-based environmental consulting firm. "And unless we curtail current actions, we will be in trouble."

New "green-collar" jobs expected to offer refuge from a possible recession include energy auditor, solar-panel installer, corporate sustainability manager, and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program specialist. "Every industry is going green, so every single industry now has the opportunity to post green jobs," says Rona Fried, president of, a networking service that fosters green businesses. Typically, the website receives 30 new job postings a day.

Stephen Kellogg, a senior vice president at CDM, which employs 889 environmental engineers, says hiring has been "extremely difficult over the last few years," since not enough young people are entering the field. "We have a severe shortage of environmental engineers," says the 57-year-old, an environmental engineer himself. "Somehow, we need to reach further back into the educational process and get people excited about engineering. Unfortunately . . . a lot of other professions have a little bit more sizzle."

Environmental Engineers

SALARY RANGE $54,150-$106,230

US EMPLOYMENT NUMBERS 54,000 in 2006, projected to be 68,000 in 2016

EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE bachelor's degree; graduate training necessary for faculty positions and many research and development programs


A high rate of turnover and many part-time wait-staff positions mean abundant openings; jobs can't be outsourced; the number of eating and drinking establishments continues to grow; eating out is increasingly popular due to many Americans' fast-paced lifestyle.

Americans, it seems, can't put down their restaurant forks, even in an emaciated economy. As the nation's job engine sputters and grocery prices spiral, the food services sector has continued to hire - surprising some economists with its counterintuitive resiliency. For the 12-month period ended in March, the industry added 276,600 workers to the payrolls, according to the federal Current Employment Statistics survey. "When the economy is weakening, there is that assumption that people are going to stop eating out," says Sophia Koropeckyj, an economist at Moody's However, she points out, when discretionary income is tight, "you can't go on a vacation. You can't buy a new car. But you may be able to go out to eat now and then and spend 20, 30, 40 bucks."

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, food and beverage servers, plus related workers, including some fast-food employees, are projected to see one of the largest numbers of new jobs arise through 2016. "We've never seen the volume of calls from restaurateurs looking for help as we've seen this spring," says David Hale, director of career services at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. "There just aren't the people out there." Hale cites the frenetic pace and relatively low wages for food servers as job deterrents. He notes the ranks of line cooks and sous chefs are also thin.

Driving the employment demand in food services is the increasing number of eateries and the public's insatiable appetite for letting someone else do the cooking. "Over the last number of years, eating out has become a part of the culture that people are not giving up in hard times," says Gordon Hamersley, co-owner of Hamersley's Bistro in the South End.

Larry Blair, 54, a self-described "professional waiter," has worked at Hamersley's for 17 years. "I look at my occupation as being like a salesperson who works on a commission in the marketplace," he says. "The more I can sell, the more money that I make."

Will consumers ever get their fill? Chris Benjamin, food and beverage director at the Inn at Essex in Essex Junction, Vermont, says, "In the best of times, they celebrate with food and beverage and, in the worst of times, they celebrate with food and beverage - probably heavier on the beverage."

Waiters and Waitresses; Bartenders

SALARY RANGE $14,450-$28,180 (waiters and waitresses, including reported tips); $14,950-$30,170 (bartenders, including reported tips)

US EMPLOYMENT NUMBERS 2,361,000 in 2006, projected to be 2,615,000 in 2016 (waiters and waitresses); 495,000 in 2006, projected to be 551,000 in 2016 (bartenders)

EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE short-term, on-the-job training


Many healthcare services are essential. Patient care can’t be outsourced. The aging US population ensures a continued heavy demand.

Regardless of the US economy’s health, people will always get sick and go someplace to get better - making healthcare professions some of the most recession proof. And there isn’t just a critical shortage of registered nurses. Registered nurses Almost half of the nation’s 30 fastest-growing occupations - including physician assistants, physical therapists, pharmacy technicians, and home health aides - are in health services, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The demand for healthcare doesn’t dissipate like the demand for fashion or new automobiles in down economic cycles,” says John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm that tracks workplace trends.Today’s healthcare job-seekers - many of them mid-career changers (or earlier) - may have more success if they pursue occupations such as a sleep technologist (also called polysomnographic technologists or polysomnographers), respiratory therapist, and medical assistant, says Jackie Long-Goding, dean of health professions at Northern Essex Community College . Newly minted respiratory therapist Gerry Vasquez, 27, of Lawrence, employed at Lawrence General Hospital on a student license, says caring for patients brings him great personal satisfaction. “When you give a person a treatment and they say they feel better after, that makes you feel good because you’re helping them breathe easier,” says Vasquez, an Iraq War veteran and former property maintenance worker.

Brittany Jean of Manchester, New Hampshire - who admits being “squeamish when it comes to blood” - stays up all night monitoring patients and their EEG- and EKG-waves patients at the sleep center at Concord Hospital in nearby Concord, New Hampshire. nearby Concord, N.H. Hospital’s sleep center. Part of the burgeoning field of sleep medicine, sleep technologists like Jean help doctors diagnose sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea. “Mostly what we’re watching is their brain waves going across the [computer] screens,” says Jean, 25, a former background investigator at a financial services company. “It’s almost like reading another language.”

The 25-year-old switched careers to apply her communication and observation skills more directly to people and, by trading her day job for her night job, earns about 40 percent more an hour and has enviable job security.Despite a looming recession and rising unemployment, the demand for workers in the health field is being driven partly by the biotech boom and the aging American public’s desire for the best medical devices and care money can buy. Predicts Challenger: “Healthcare is going to replace the building of roads and bridges and ports - infrastructure - as far as public-spending projects.”

SLEEP TECHNOLOGISTS (part of a classification called “Health Technicians and Technologists, All Other”)

SALARY RANGE: $27,620-$59,020

US EMPLOYMENT NUMBERS: 79,000 in 2006, projected to be 91,000 in 2016

EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE: postsecondary certificate program; those who pass a voluntary credentialing exam or a obtain a license -- required in some states but not in Massachusetts [or any of the New England states.] -- have the best opportunities


SALARY RANGE: $40,840-$64,190

US EMPLOYMENT NUMBERS: 102,000 in 2006, projected to be 126,000 in 2016

EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE: associate’s degree, but a bachelor’s or master’s may be necessary for advancement; must be licensed in most states [i.e. all except Alaska and Hawaii.]


SALARY RANGE:$21,970-$36,840

US EMPLOYMENT NUMBERS: 417,000 in 2006, projected to be 565,000 in 2016

EDUCATION/EXPERIENCE: moderate on-the-job training, but many complete one-year or two-year programs

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