Table of Contents

A recession isn't bad news for everyone. Some career professionals sail through economic turmoil unscathed, and some even enjoy better job prospect when times are tough. With a little planning and an online education, you can position yourself for success--even in the tightest job market since the Great Depression. The following recession-resistant careers can help you weather the economic storm and land on your feet.

Economic Recession Reality

With headlines like "U.S. Loses 533,000 Jobs in Biggest Drop Since 1974," it's no wonder people are panicking. Taken as a whole, the economy is in a grim state. The stock market lost 34 percent of its value in 2008, its worst year since 1931. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has charted a steady decline in employment since the unofficial start of the recession a year ago. In total, 1.9 million jobs vanished in 2008, nearly two-thirds of them in the final quarter of the year. Only the Great Depression can claim a more precipitous decline.

Who is typically most affected by unemployment? Those workers with less education. Though this recession has affected people with all levels of education, you can see that there is a clear trend between education attainment and unemployment rates.

The economy is vast, and broad trends obscure the individual workers who are doing fine. Just as a flood consistently leaves higher elevations unscathed, recessions consistently pass by certain sectors of the economy and engulf others. To find the high ground in the job market, let history and common sense be your guide.

Learning from Past Experience

The DOL has collected detailed data on each recession since the early 1900s, developing a picture of vulnerability and resilience in a downturn.

The Achilles Heel

Industries consistently hardest hit include:

  • Construction
  • Manufacturing
  • Retail
  • Real Estate
  • Insurance

Manufacturing and retail are particularly vulnerable to market cycles because they depend on consumer spending. Financial uncertainty and job loss can cause major declines in demand, especially for durable goods such as cars and appliances. The current recession bears out past experience: the worst news has been confined to these industries. Manufacturing jobs alone account for nearly one-third of the total job loss, with about 604,000 layoffs over the course of the recession. Financial services companies contributed heavily to the decline, laying off 250,000 employees in 2008.

Recession-Proof Industries

The following industries, by contrast, tend to be a good bet in a recession.

  • Health Services
  • Education
  • Government
  • Agriculture
  • Legal Services
  • Financial Services such as Accounting

These "anticyclical" industries derive their profit from public services and life essentials such as medical care, taxes, and food. We can count on life, death, and taxes--and the professionals who support us can count on their jobs.

Recession Winners: Education and Health Care

Education and health services have been the standout performers in recessions since 1969--both not only survive but thrive in a downturn. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) observes, "The health care industry bucks the trend by adding significantly more jobs in times of economic decline than it does during expansions." Economists attribute the boom to several factors. Demand for these services can be counted on to hold steady or increase when times are tough. People continue to get sick, children still go to school, and jobless adults flock to career training programs. Funding comes largely from government or private insurance companies rather than individual consumers. And finally, both education and health care suffer from chronic understaffing. Layoffs elsewhere in the economy help these industries fill the ranks.

True to form, education and health services are currently outperforming the market. The latest figures from the BLS indicate a 6 percent increase in education and health care jobs since September 2006. Even in November 2008, the worst month on record according to The New York Times, these two industries boosted their ranks by 52,000. Given this encouraging performance, it's no wonder health care and education careers account for nearly half of U.S. News & World Report's annual 'Best Careers' list.

Top Career Choices for a Recession

The following careers promise strong opportunities in any economy. What's more, you can complete the requisite education online. Online degree programs are a popular recession-era option, because they allow students to build career skills without sacrificing income from their day jobs.


Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers help children with physical or mental disabilities develop important life skills. Certified special education teachers are in short supply, leading the BLS to forecast 15 percent job growth in this field. Minimum educational qualifications include a bachelor's degree and an approved special education training program. For best results, aim for a master's degree. Online programs offer a Master of Education (MEd) degree in special education.

Instructional Coordinator

Instructional coordinators develop curricula at either the K-12 or postsecondary level. New educational standards and methods are creating demand for curriculum developers in our nation's public schools. At the same time, a competitive job market is driving new interest in adult continuing education and career training programs. The BLS predicts 22 percent growth in instructional coordinator jobs. An online master's degree in education can prepare you to take on the challenge of instructional design. Look for an online program in curriculum design.

Health Care

Registered Nurse

With accelerating demand for health services, registered nurses are playing an expanded role in clinics and hospitals. The nursing profession is expected to add more jobs than any other occupation in the United States--an estimated 587,000 through 2016. Registered nurses have three options for obtaining certification: an associate's degree in nursing (ADN), a bachelor's degree (BSN), or a registered nursing (RN) diploma. Online degree programs offer a variety of options in nursing, from continuing education courses to master's degrees. For licensed practical nurses (LPNs) or vocational nurses (LVNs) looking to expand their career opportunities, online colleges offer special LPN or LVN to bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) programs.

Pharmacy Technician

Pharmacy professionals can expect wildfire employment growth as the population ages and demand for pharmaceuticals increases. Pharmacy technicians are among the DOL's thirty fastest-growing occupations, with 32 percent job growth forecast through 2016. Pharmacy technicians work alongside pharmacists to provide medication. The technician career path is more accessible than that of a licensed pharmacist--an online pharmacy technician diploma can be completed in under a year.


Health Policy Analyst

The Obama administration has placed health care reform at the top of the agenda. That bodes well for trained health policy analysts. Analysts are on the frontlines of health care reform, making federal policy recommendations and determining how best to use available medical resources to care for an aging population. An online master's degree in health policy and management or public policy can get you started on this promising career path.

Urban Planner

With environmental and social problems taxing our cities, demand is growing for trained urban and regional planners. Urban planners develop land use and zoning initiatives and plan civic infrastructure upgrades. A master's degree is the preferred qualification for this career. Online degree programs are available in engineering management, urban planning, and public policy.

Energy & Environment


Recession or not, access to fresh water sources and the rehabilitation of contaminated groundwater will remain top priorities in years to come. Hydrologists contribute their scientific expertise to solving these environmental problems. An online bachelor's degree in environmental science can get you started in this high-growth field, but for the best career opportunities, plan on completing a hydrology or environmental science master's degree as well.

Petroleum Engineer

With oil and natural gas in high demand and short supply, petroleum engineers can count on surviving this recession. Petroleum engineers enjoy the highest salaries of any engineering specialty. An online bachelor's degree in engineering offers the standard qualification for this career. You can also find a number of specialized master's degree programs online to help you advance into management positions. Online MBAs in engineering management or master's degrees in oil and gas engineering offer advanced training you can complete alongside your day job.

'Recession' doesn't have to spell disaster. With a little career planning, you can take advantage of resilient demand and hidden opportunities in the current economy. Online degree programs offer a unique resource, allowing you to train for a new career while keeping your current job. Learn while you earn, and you can confront today's economic challenges armed with a recession-proof career plan.


  • BBC, Record Stock Market Falls in 2008 (Dec. 31, 2008)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment in Current Recovery
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Environmental Scientists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/environmental-scientists-and-specialists.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Government Employment and the 2001 Recession
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Instructional Coordinators, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/instructional-coordinators.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pharmacy Technicians, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/pharmacy-technicians.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Services in Recession
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Special Education Teachers, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Thirty Fastest-Growing Occupations
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics, Urban and Regional Planners, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/urban-and-regional-planners.htm
  • BusinessWeek, Some Cities Will Be Safer in a Recession, by Prashant Gopal (Oct. 14, 2008)
  • BusinessWeek, Will Healthcare Save the Country From a Recession?, posted by Michael Mandel (January 4, 2009)
  • Monster.com, Nursing: The Recession-Proof Career
  • ResumeBear, Top Fifty Recession-Proof Industries
  • The Boston Globe, Recession-resistant Careers, by Stacey Chase (June 1, 2008)
  • The Tennesseean, Recession Runs Deep, Wide, by Annys Shin of the Washington Post (Dec. 27, 2008)
  • The New York Times, U.S. Loses 533,000 Jobs in Biggest Drop Since 1974, by Louis Uchitelle (Dec 5, 2008)
  • U.S. News & World Report, The Thirty Best Careers for 2009, by Liz Wolgemuth (Dec. 11, 2008)
  • Water-Technology.net, Water, Recession, and the Need to Invest, by Dr. Gareth Evans