During an economic downturn, college students can improve job prospects by strengthening soft skills and learning new technologies.

How to Recession-Proof Your Career After College


  • Economic downturns may be a good time to retrain, upskill, or earn a degree
  • A college education imparts valuable soft skills that that are always in demand
  • Future-proof careers align skills to the needs of growing and durable industries
  • Science, tech, and healthcare are sure bets during an economic downturn

For the foreseeable future, college students will continue to feel the effects of coronavirus. First, they'll log on for spring term rather than returning to campus as part of an unprecedented national experiment in online education. Next, they'll graduate and step into an uncertain economic landscape where jobs are disappearing at a rapid rate.

Current and prospective students will need to adapt to the challenges of this new reality. An economic recession might shape a student's choice of major or the type of career they end up pursuing. Some students may even feel less freedom to explore their passions in favor of more practical concerns, like graduating on time or going to a more affordable college.

A recession should inform students' career preparation, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should change your course of study. The best career path, during both good and hard times, aligns talent with market demand. This means identifying the skills you excel at and finding where those skills continue to be needed during an economic downturn.

An anguished man in a suit clenches his fist at his desk as he lays his head down on his computer keyboard.

The Economic Downturn and Higher Education

Wall Street economists predict an economic contraction lasting at least the first half of 2020. While optimistic predictions have the GDP rebounding during the second half of the year, the general downturn will take longer to recover from.

The immediate effects of coronavirus on the job market include closed businesses, lost jobs, and reduced hours. But, as seen during previous recessions, fewer opportunities to make money inspire people to go back to school.

A recession could cause [college] enrollment numbers to swell … particularly among nontraditional students who value the flexibility of online education.

Higher education has been anticipating an enrollment cliff — a sudden paucity of college-age people around the year 2025 — with major repercussions for colleges' ability to stay open and offer programs. A recession could cause enrollment numbers to swell instead, particularly among nontraditional students who value the flexibility of online education.

While the cost of higher education will be a major conversation, current and prospective students stand to benefit from well-funded schools, large programs, and a new emphasis on distance learning. In addition, students can use this time to prioritize skills that are likely to be future- and recession-proof.

The Skills Needed for the Future

So what should college students be studying that will improve their job prospects during a recession?

According to the World Economic Forum's 2018 Future of Jobs Report, in-demand skills in the next few years will increasingly center around creativity, analysis, and emotional intelligence, and less around physical capabilities and people management.

While technology can replace manual labor, it is far from being able to replace the soft skills that are built into a college education. The jobs that can't be rendered obsolete by machines, or cut from the budget in times of crisis, are those that require communication, critical thinking, and leadership.

THE MOST IN-DEMAND SOFT SKILLS

  • Creativity
  • Persuasion
  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Emotional intelligence

Source: LinkedIn

A college education in any subject helps develop capabilities that machines can't replace. For example, emotional intelligence and social skills are beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced technology.

Jobs that are guaranteed to still be around in the future are those that require the soft skills that a college education imparts. Effective communication, creative problem-solving, and innovative thinking are skills honed throughout the college experience. In comparison, hard skills — measurable abilities like accounting or database entry — may be more easily replaced by the use of artificial intelligence.

College graduates increasingly recognize the value of soft skills. In a 2020 survey, BestColleges found that the majority of college graduates rated soft skills as the most valuable benefit of their education. And as LinkedIn data shows, majors that foster creativity, persuasion, and collaboration are likely to pay dividends in the future.

Rather than aiming your career ambitions at a specific role, center your education and work experience on the translatable skills your target industry values. The economy will always be in flux. Your education and career goals should be similarly fluid.

Recession-Proof Industries

Aside from equipping yourself with a set of general skills that are in demand by employers, you can also target specific industries that are likely to withstand an economic downturn.

ZipRecruiter analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to find which occupations grew during the last two recessions, which happened in 2001 and in 2007-2009. The list is dominated by healthcare roles. The BLS backs up this finding, reporting that many of the fastest-growing occupations are in the healthcare industry.

Industries That Saw Growth During the Last Two Recessions
Industry Top Careers
Healthcare
  • Registered Nurses
  • Home Health Aides
  • Personal Care Aides
  • Medical Assistants
  • Medical Secretaries
  • Nursing Aides
  • Pharmacy Technicians
  • EMT / Paramedics
  • Physical Therapists
  • Pharmacists
  • Mental Health Counselors
  • Physician Assistants
Civil Service
  • Social and Human Service Assistants
  • Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers
  • Recreation Workers
  • Legal Clerks
Education
  • Childcare workers
  • Health Specialties Teachers
  • Coaches and Scouts
  • Educational/Guidance Counselors
  • Art/Drama/Music Teachers
Business
  • Management Analysts
  • Logisticians

Source: ZipRecruiter

Together, these findings point to the unflagging importance of certain essential industries, like healthcare, science, and education, as well as to the continued centrality of technology. For a recession-proof career, consider matching your educational goals to the hiring needs of these stable fields.

Technology Will Dictate Tomorrow's Jobs

Future shake-ups in the job market are frequently linked to one factor: technology. Jobs of the future will in large part reflect the technological disruption brought about by automation and artificial intelligence.

Artificial intelligence will improve the efficiency of virtually every sector, sloughing off repetitive tasks to computers. The factory worker is the typical symbol for jobs displaced by technology, but other roles, like legal support staff and IT workers, can also be automated.

THE MOST IN-DEMAND HARD SKILLS

  • Blockchain
  • Cloud computing
  • Analytical reasoning
  • Artificial intelligence
  • UX design
  • Business analysis
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Sales
  • Scientific computing
  • Video production

Source: LinkedIn

That said, automation frees up workers for the human-required tasks of inventing, trouble-shooting, and project management. So, at the same time technology is replacing jobs, it is also creating new ones — but those new jobs will demand more skills than the jobs being taken away.

Skills in technology, particularly the ability to automate processes or make them more efficient, will continue to be in high demand. In LinkedIn's assessment of the most in-demand hard skills, for example, blockchain and cloud computing topped the list.

However, you don't necessarily need a computer science degree to succeed in tomorrow's workforce. Simply having tech-savvy, such as the ability to produce videos or use digital sales platforms, will greatly enhance your employability.

An overheaf shot of three developers consulting each others' laptops for an error in some code; their shared table is littered with a banana peel, coffee cups, and soda cans.

Recommendations for College Students

Students looking out on a suddenly harsh economic climate may feel a shift in priorities. A degree in business might sound a lot surer than one in fine arts, but don't underestimate the value of creativity in tomorrow's workforce.

Students should consider steps they can take to adapt their education to match economic demand. For example, a visual arts student might supplement their coursework with classes in industrial or UX design to make their resume more attractive to potential employers.

Below, we've compiled some tips to make your career recession-proof after college.

  • Be entrepreneurial

    Look beyond traditional education to give yourself an edge. Employers want to see entrepreneurial spirit through extracurricular activities and projects.

  • Hone soft skills

    Skills like creativity, persuasion, and communication are highly valued in the workplace. While you're in college, undertake projects that enhance your soft skills.

  • Learn tech skills

    Aside from the economy, technology is the major arbiter of future jobs. Stay informed of developing technologies, particularly as they are deployed in your field. Take advantage of opportunities to learn new tech skills from students, coworkers, and online resources.

  • Research fields that are in demand

    The future of work is practically its own field of study. A variety of resources, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics or McKinsey's Jobs of Tomorrow report, describe the jobs likely to stick around in the future.

  • Know that your future job might not exist yet

    Uncertainty, as the present crisis shows, doesn't provide much comfort. But with new technology and new economic growth, job opportunities are likely to evolve in a way we can't predict.