Best Careers in a Recession

Best Careers in a Recession

Guest Writer

Updated October 7, 2023 Updated October 07

David Williams seeks out the best careers to enter during an economic downturn, and gathers expert advice on how graduates can become ‘recession-proof’.

Public sector

The public sector is not renowned for responding quickly to new conditions. During an upturn, this can make the public sector look ponderous and dull; but, in a downturn, the opposite occurs.

In such a situation, the public sector could almost be as, if not more, popular than its counterpart, because unlike much of the private sector, its graduate recruitment has not declined.

Paul Smith, Director of Career Services at Queen's University in Ontario says in Canada the area that has been most resistant has been public service. "The provincial and federal governments are on a recruiting romp because the last time they hired aggressively was 30 years ago and the baby-boomer generation they employed then is now near retirement."

Marva Gumbs Jennings, executive director of The George Washington University Career Center in the US reinforces Smith's comment. "State, local and federal government have not felt the severity of the recession as have other industries," she says.

In the medium term, it is arguable that opportunities in the public sector are likely to diminish as governments cut public spending, both because of falling tax revenues and to recoup the cost of any bail outs they have made to the finance industry.

In the short-term, however, there are jobs. "The consensus seems to be that the public sector is generally holding its own," confirms Kevin Collins, a Career Consultant at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. "Tangentially, consulting firms that do business with the federal government are also doing well."

Higher education

Higher education is famously recession-proof. If you are considering doing a graduate degree in part to escape from the downturn, you can be certain that hundreds of thousands of other people across the world have the same intention.

What's more, the increasing complexity of a technically-driven, globally-connected world means that the underlying demand for higher education will not disappear with the upturn.

"The world of education tends to have a little bit more security," explains Gumbs Jennings. "It is an industry that is driven by tuition fees, so if students continue to apply, it will thrive."


Alongside education, careers professionals also report that the healthcare industry is continuing to recruit.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2008-9 reports that this industry super-sector is projected to grow by 18.8%  and add more jobs (nearly 5.5 million) than any other industry super-sector [between 2006 and 2016].

More than three out of every ten new jobs created in the US economy will be in either the healthcare and social assistance or public and private educational services sectors.

A career in healthcare is not necessarily about holding a medical degree. For example, the Handbook states: "Employment of medical and health services managers is expected to grow 16% from 2006 to 2016, faster than the average for all occupations. The healthcare industry will continue to expand and diversify, requiring managers to help ensure smooth business operations."

Driven by a private insurance industry in a way that some regard as unsustainable, the example of private-sector US healthcare standards and technical innovation is nevertheless aspirational for much of the rest of the world.


It's not exactly an industry in its own right, but entrepreneurship remains one of the most recession-proof career choices.

Recessions are actually a time of opportunity, both because the economy is changing and because the real and perceived risks of going into entrepreneurship are minimised when compared to the relative uncertainty of employment.

Professor Frank Roche, Director, University College Dublin Smurfit Graduate Business School puts it like this: "A recession is a time that throws up opportunity. It's a great time for entrepreneurship and innovation for example. People don't want to pay high prices, or there are services they need but which they can't get.

"They say 10% of employees have thought about setting up a business; these are people who are alert to the environment around them and can see how they can add more value to the customer. But the trigger that makes them do it is often redundancy or unemployment."

Recession-proof yourself

Looking outward for industries that are expanding, or for entrepreneurial opportunities, is one approach to thriving in the recession, but there is a complementary, inward approach.

It's not the easiest thing to do, but careers advisors suggest viewing the recession as an opportunity to think about who you are, what your skills are and what you want to do. The more competitive environment means you have to do 'you' better.

"It's a wonderful time for graduates to understand their passion, interests and skills, and how they relate to the industry they want to get into," argues Gumbs Jennings.

"The last few years have been so prescribed. You major in this subject because that is where the opportunities are and no one had to think beyond quite a narrow box.

"When it's more competitive, you have to really know who you are and what you want in order to market yourself. You have to dig a little deeper, but it really is an opportunity to grow and develop."

Smith doesn't know if there is such a thing as a recession-proof graduate career, but he does believe it's down to the individual as to how successful they are.

"As an individual you can develop your own skills and resilience to make yourself recession resistant. If you can take control of things to the maximum of your ability, you will find that you can manage your own way through in a much more successful way."

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in October 2023

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