How to Rehabilitate a Dying Career

MainStreet

Ariel Preminger spent a decade running a construction business that built entry-level homes for families in the Los Angeles area, but by the middle of 2008, Southern California's housing market had gone bust and Preminger quickly found himself without customers, and without a job.

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"At the beginning of the recession, I thought we were going through a slowdown in the housing market for a couple years and then we would rebound," Preminger said. "But instead of a slowdown, it was a complete collapse and our business completely stopped."

Preminger, who moved to the U.S. from Chile in 1987 to build "a better future" for himself, realized he had no choice but to change his career to protect that future. He spent much of the year after his business collapsed weighing his options, considering whether to open a business in the food industry or perhaps start a trucking company. Eventually deciding it would be better not to abandon the home construction world he knew, he opened a home painting store in 2009 instead that is already doing quite well.

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"The housing business had dried up, but I wanted to stay in this industry, so I chose the paint business because it's not something you can do away with," he said. "There is always a need for a paint."

Many Americans have likely had the unfortunate experience of realizing they are stuck in a dead-end job with little room for advancement. But in recent years, millions of workers like Ariel have had a different kind of awakening. It's not the job that's the dead end, but rather the entire profession.

Virtually every profession experienced some cut-backs during the recession, but for a handful of industries, the layoffs were much more severe. Estimates say that 8 million jobs were lost nationwide during the recession, and the majority of these were in the retail and manufacturing industries as well as construction. The number of people employed in the construction industry in particular dropped from about 7.5 million the month before the recession began to 5.6 million by the beginning of this year, and has largely stalled there. As a result, the unemployment rate in this industry peaked at 27% in February 2010 and continues to hover around the 20% line, more than twice the national average.

Even as the economy begins to improve, some economists now predict that these industries will never be able to reach pre-recession employment levels.

"I think we have entered a period of long and permanent unemployment for these industries," said Edward E. Leamer, director of the Anderson Forecast at the University of California, Los Angeles, which provides quarterly predictions about the direction of the U.S. economy. "This is completely unprecedented."

According to an analysis Leamer published recently, as many as 5.5 million jobs lost during the recession will never come back. These include some 2.5 million manufacturing jobs, 2 million construction jobs and roughly 1 million retail jobs. The reason, Learner noted, is that there is no longer a need for these jobs, either because the positions are being outsourced overseas, or assumed by computers and robots. The recession did not cause these problems, but simply accelerated the need for companies to trim the fat and modernize their workforce.

"It's been ticking away in the background and now we have to confront reality," Learner said. "A large fraction of our workforce is unsuited for work in the 21st century."

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If you're working in one of these troubled industries, now might be the time to follow Preminger's example and find a way to fortify your career.

Step 1: Research Your Profession's Future

The first and perhaps most important step that all workers should take right now is to begin researching trends in their industry.

"Many employees don't realize that industry downsizing will affect their jobs until it's too late. But in this economy, you should be on the lookout for telltale signs," said Alexandra Levitt, a career expert and author of New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Great New Career. "One key question to ask yourself is if there have been major layoffs or consolidations in companies similar to yours."

Levitt also recommends browsing through periodicals that relate to your industry so you can spot trends as they happen. Not only is this a good way to forecast your job security, it could give you clues about the next big thing in your industry or a related profession so you can begin searching for opportunities there.

If you don't feel like running to your local library to browse through niche periodicals, use online tools like the Future-Jobs-O-Matic, from American Public Media's Marketplace. Just click on any of the professions listed on the page, and this tool will show you the job prospects and average salary of the position in 2018, based on government data. If the outlook is grave, it may be time to look elsewhere.

Step 2: Focus on Your Skill, Not Your Industry

If you find out your industry is in trouble, it doesn't mean you need to spend thousands of dollars to go back to school and jump into a completely unrelated sector. Instead, focus on what you are particularly good at and see where you can apply the skills you have already learned.

"The people who do best in a difficult workforce are the most flexible, so focus on where you're flexible. Even if you are in a dying field, you are really just in an aspect of a dying field," said Penelope Trunk, a popular blogger and CEO of the Brazen Careerist, a career management site. "Maybe you specialize in the accounting part of manufacturing, or in the relocation segment in real estate, or the online section of a newspaper. Focus on the subset of your job, rather than the sector you're in, and transfer that skill to another sector."

Step 3: Don't Be Afraid to Tweak Your Resume

As part of this, it may also be necessary to give your resume a makeover to play up your skillset, rather than your dying profession.

"You absolutely need to start re-tooling your resume," Trunk says. "A lot of moving yourself from one sector to another is purely a matter of marketing. If you frame the history of your career as being manufacturing, then you're unemployable. So you need to work to re-invent yourself on paper first and accentuate your skills."

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Part of tweaking your resume may mean leaving off certain jobs you've worked, or even making slight changes to the positions that you've had.

"That's not lying," Trunk says. "It's marketing yourself."

Step 4: Pay Attention to the Professions of the Future

While many positions in the country are gradually being handled by machines, some jobs will always need people.

"Many careers in fields such as health care, education and information technology simply cannot be automated," said a spokesperson for the Department of Labor. "That is something that any job seeker should consider when looking at a career change."

Indeed, the professions that are growing the fastest, according to government data, are positions like health care aides, physicians' assistants and personal trainers, not just because real people are needed to do these tasks, but also because the U.S. population is getting older and requires more care from these professionals than before.

Needless to say, the tricky part is finding a way to make the leap from your old job to one of these new ones. It may not be incredibly difficult for someone who handled technical computer duties in a manufacturing job to make the transition to an information technology position, but how can you suddenly move to the medical profession?

According to the Department of Labor spokesperson, it's not impossible, as there are various short-term training programs and education options around the country for people interested in pursuing jobs in information technologies and health care.

Workers can find these programs and other job resources on sites like CareerOneStop.org and MySkillsMyFuture.com, both of which are run by the Department of Labor.

And as with any career, Levitt, the career expert, notes that it's also useful to try networking with professionals in your desired industry and being willing to take opportunities at smaller companies to get your foot in the door.

Step 5: Embrace the Information Age

Regardless of which industry you choose to pursue, in order to secure your job prospects going forward, it is absolutely essential now to get comfortable with a computer, as this is quickly becoming a requirement for jobs in all major professions.

"Whatever field one wants to go into, they need to understand the information age," said Tyrone Everett, regional director at the Center for Employment Training, one of the largest career training programs in the country. "Plumbers, maintenance workers, roofers and more all need to understand how to access and pull information from the Internet to do their jobs now. There's no way around it."

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Everett recommends Americans start doing what he calls "barrier reduction exercises," such as playing computer games with your children or grandchildren and simply being willing to get on the computer and "make mistakes so you realize the computer won't blow up when you do."

"We have seen so many people laid off from the post office and construction work sites who have a great work ethic but just need to be re-careered in this way," he said.

Step 6: Be Honest With Yourself

Obviously, no one wants to find themselves in the situation where their career is in danger, but the only thing that can make the situation worse is by failing to be honest with yourself and acknowledge that a change is needed.

"It's important to recognize that your industry or expertise is in decline, not growth," said Tory Johnson, CEO of Women for Hire, a recruiting company. "You need to avoid denial."

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