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Why “Recession-Proof” Jobs Are a Myth

US News | Rick Newman

When President Obama proposed a federal pay freeze recently, there must have been quite a few civil servants who thought, “Whoa! This isn’t supposed to happen!”

In private firms, pay freezes have become as common as Post-It notes. But government jobs, you’ll recall, are supposed to be “recession-proof” and far less susceptible to the strains of a weak economy. The government has never said that, exactly, but lots of career experts have, and if the compact was never overt it was at least well understood: Government jobs tend to come with lower pay and prestige, but with benefits and job security that make up for it.

No longer. As with so many other things, many of the old assumptions about safe jobs and stable careers have been shattered by the grueling economic transformation we’re still in the middle of. Yet the ubiquitous lists of best careers and recession-proof jobs continue to propagate the phony idea that some lines of work are immune to economic stress. Here are some of the careers recommended by outfits like CareerBuilder, Forbes, Time, HR World, and Associated Content, along with the more sobering reality:

Education. Conventional wisdom: Education is indispensable and most teachers get their paychecks from state or local governments, which are less susceptible to recessions than private industry. Plus, most teachers belong to unions, which provide further protection against layoffs and pay cuts.

Reality: State and local governments are facing severe budget pressures and are starting to lay off teachers. Since 2008, for instance, the number of local teaching jobs has fallen by 157,000, according to the Labor Department. Plus, teachers’ unions that refuse to accept pay and benefit cuts are increasingly seen as out of step with the rest of America, prompting a backlash in some areas that could lead to school consolidations and other recession-like moves.

Military. Conventional wisdom: We’re still fighting two wars, terrorism is ever-present, and Congress always supports the military.

Reality: The huge federal debt has to be cut somehow, and the military is one of the biggest targets. One prominent proposal calls for freezing military pay, cutting benefits, and outsourcing many military jobs to contractors. As for Congress, it tends to support big weapons programs more than spending on troops. Plus, the Iraq deployment is winding down and a drawdown in Afghanistan is scheduled to begin next summer.

Public safety. Conventional wisdom: Police, firefighter, and federal law enforcement jobs will be the last to be cut.

Reality: Maybe so, but governments have now reached that point. Police and fire departments are now subject to the same pressures as other local government agencies, and cuts in the federal workforce seem inevitable as well, with every agency likely to give up something. Overall, state and local governments have cut 260,000 jobs this year alone, with more cuts likely in 2011 and 2012.

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