A Few Bright Spots Amid Rising Unemployment

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Matthew Staver / Bloomberg News / Landov

A man looks at job postings at a Denver Workforce Center on Nov. 5, 2008

The latest signpost in the U.S. job market's descent arrived on Friday, when the Department of Labor announced that the non-farm payrolls shed an unexpectedly high 240,000 jobs in October, the tenth straight monthly decline, and yet another sign that the recession's grip is tightening. Overall, the unemployment rate surged to 6.5%, higher than most economists had been expecting. The report added to that gloom with a downward revision of September job losses to 284,000, the biggest monthly loss since 2001.

The prospects for a turnaround anytime soon are not good, as companies engaged in recruitment report discouraging numbers as well. Job postings from employers fell in all nine Census Bureau regions in October, according to a report released by the job search website Monster.com, whose employment index slid 10 points last month after rising in August and September. The precipitous drop, said Monster Worldwide's vice president of research, Jesse Harriott, "suggests that U.S. businesses are scaling back their recruitment due to uncertainty surrounding the global financial crisis." Other reports confirm the trend: Almost 30% of executives surveyed by the consulting firm McKinsey and Co. in September said they expected their companies to slash staff over the coming six months. (See pictures of TIME's Wall Street covers.)

But despite the grisly unemployment figures and waves of fresh layoffs, there are rays of light peeking through the dark employment landscape — if you're seeking work in the right places. With consumers curbing discretionary spending, it makes sense to home in on recession-proof industries. "Health care has been the bulwark of the economy," says John Challenger, CEO of the global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. With proper medical attention a bedrock need, Challenger says a "wide swath of companies" have a need for physical therapists, nurses, medical records technologists and digital imaging specialists. Healthcare is also the industry showing the most growth in unionization, says Gordon Pavey, director of collective bargaining for the AFL-CIO.

A second area that enjoys continued demand is energy, despite the recent collapse in oil prices. The McKinsey survey found that energy executives were bullish about the industry's chances for expansion, with 43% predicting a rise in staffing. Recruiters and analysts have been echoing this optimism as well. Notes Dan Clark, managing partner of EnergyHeadhunter, a Houston recruiter: "Most energy projects are large multi-year projects, much like a long train. The hiring you're seeing now relates to projects started a year ago, or more, before the decline in oil prices." Challenger concurs: "The energy sector remains a very strong area," he says.

John Hoagland of Mainstay Partners, a boutique executive search company that works with venture capital firms, argues the market for clean-technology — particularly companies focused on energy storage and transmission — should rise, and with it, employment. The sector's prospects were burnished this week by the election of a president who has publicly vowed to make energy a top priority. "Barack Obama, says Hoagland, "is not beholden to a group of friends who see the world within a 'Drill, baby, drill' mindset." EnergyHeadhunter's Clark echoes excitement over alternative-energy jobs: "Fuel cell technology is a strong area for recruitment right now," he says. (See pictures of the Top 10 scared traders.)

Technology is another fertile arena. The tech news website CNET features a "spreadsheet of sunshine": a list of top Web 2.0 companies in search of software engineers, developers, open source technicians and other savvy staffers. Among the blue-chip companies hiring en masse are Facebook, Samsung, Intel and Research in Motion, the makers of the Blackberry. But it's also possible to flourish at high-tech companies without being, well, high-tech. "If you're in the sales side of technology, that's a pretty good place to be," Hoagland says. "Until we find bottom, what [companies] are going to be focused on is short-term stuff. It's sales and marketing."

While the financial industry is in tatters, Wall Street's near implosion kindled concern over the dangers of unfettered free markets — a fear that could spur demand for those able to gauge and repair the damage. "It looks like we're going to go into more of a regulatory environment, so that will help accountants and lawyers," Challenger says.

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