But even recessionary economies have job openings. A professional whose skills are no longer needed in one industry may find a pocket of demand for those skills in another.
Take banking, for example. Despite the turmoil in the broader industry, Chicago-area branches of several top banks, including J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., U.S. Bancorp and Fifth Third Bancorp, have been advertising jobs recently for personal or retail bankers, the people who work directly with customers. Ideal candidates have experience interacting with customers but not necessarily at financial institutions.
For store managers in depressed service-intensive industries such as consumer electronics and luxury goods, banking can be fertile ground for job hunting.
"A sales manager—someone who was in a leadership position—with a proven track record from retail, such as Circuit City or Nordstrom, could absolutely work in this job," says Judy Rayborn, supervisor of human resources for Fifth Third Bank in Chicago.
The insurance industry is expected to remain a strong employer in Illinois, despite a couple of spectacular failures in other parts of the country, says Kevin Martin, executive director of the Illinois Insurance Association, an industry advocacy group in Springfield.
Moreover, insurance takes in professionals from all sorts of backgrounds, including the hard-hit real estate sector.
Claims adjusters often come with experience in property management or real estate development because they understand how to estimate the cost of repairing a building after damage from a fire or other disaster, Martin says. Auto adjusters usually have backgrounds in the repair business.
Insurers continue to advertise jobs for independent agents, who get commissions for selling the companies' products. The vast majority of people in these jobs have no insurance background, says Matt Bennett, a district manager for Farmers Insurance Group in Rosemont.
"Some of our most recent people have come from the mortgage industry or have owned businesses," he says. "But people from pretty much any walk of life can do this."
Perhaps no industry is more depressed today than the mortgage business. But even here, companies are hiring.
Chicago-based Guaranteed Rate Inc. has been hiring a group hard hit by layoffs: loan originators, brokers who connect borrowers with lenders. Unlike rivals, Guaranteed made its biggest profits ever in 2008, and the company has added 15 branch offices in the past few months, says Victor Ciardelli III, its founder and chief executive.
But Ciardelli warns that the loan originators landing jobs now "are really the top talent in the business."
Other mortgage companies and banks are hiring originators, processors and underwriters with experience in Federal Housing Authority loans, the government-secured mortgages that have filled some of the gap left by the disappearance of subprime loans, says Robin Burke, senior vice president at Contemporary Services Inc., a mortgage industry staffing company based in Schaumburg, Illinois.
Mortgage industry professionals without direct experience can make themselves marketable by taking short courses on FHA lending, Burke says.
Accounting is perhaps the hottest job market in today's economy because changes to accounting rules have boosted demand for people with auditing skills.
While law firms, brokerage houses and corporations have cut employee recruiting, accounting firms are hiring, says Dennis Reigal, director of academic and career development for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, a professional group in New York.
"It's pretty clear that accounting is a recession-proof job," he says.
PricewaterhouseCoopers is in the market for certified public accountants with high levels of expertise in areas that will help companies navigate a recession, such as managing credit crises or financial restructuring, says Robert Daugherty, the firm's New York-based U.S. sourcing leader.
While hiring levels at Pricewaterhouse in 2009 will be about the same as in 2008, he says those hires will include more than twice the number of MBAs. Daugherty also notes that tax attorneys are in demand throughout the industry. Changes in U.S. tax codes expected under the incoming administration likely will create an even bigger job market for these professionals.
"If you are a tax professional with four to five years' experience, you are very valuable right now," he says.
Accounting isn't the kind of work one can get without specific education and certifications. But for a business professional willing to return to college for a career change, it's a viable option.
At the University of Illinois at Chicago, anyone with a degree in finance, marketing or business can earn a master's degree in accounting in about three semesters.
Careers in health care remain some of the safest during a recession. But industry recruiters stress that workers in demand in this field are practitioners: nurses, radiology technologists and other medical specialists. Don't expect to break into the industry's few administrative jobs with business credentials alone.
In industries where jobs are particularly scarce, honing certain broad business skills can help professionals survive layoffs or find new positions.
Managers in all industries need to show decisiveness—decisions made "like a pilot, rather than by committee," says John Casey, president and owner of Shamrock Consultants Inc., a Chicago recruiting firm that specializes in manufacturing. A decisive manager, for example, devises a plan that will improve or get rid of an underperforming employee instead of simply "giving him more time."
No one disputes that it's much harder to land good jobs today than it was a year ago. But despite the gloom, hiring professionals in every industry consistently echoed comments from Fifth Third Bank’s Rayborn about banking: "Are there as many job opportunities now? No. But there are opportunities, across the board."