The job market may be chillier than at any time in the past generation. But by choice or necessity, people are still diving in. And they're learning to swim amid the riptide and head wind.
Employment specialists and job hunters have seen a dramatic shrinking of opportunities in recent months, as economic problems have multiplied.
The US jobless rate climbed to 7.2 percent last month, its highest point in 16 years, with jittery employers paring more than 500,000 positions, the Labor Department reported Friday.
"Everybody's feeling the pinch," said Ali Chambers, vice president at ClearRock Inc., a Boston outplacement and coaching firm. "It would be very difficult to find an area that's untouched."
Still, there are jobs to be had in the constricted new environment, with many companies and other organizations hiring selectively in certain areas even as they pare back in others.
Among large industries in the Boston area, healthcare, education, and life sciences are faring relatively better than financial services and high technology. (The healthcare sector, in fact, added about 32,000 jobs nationally in December - and 372,000 last year - in the face of the downturn.)
And workers with sought-after skills, from nurse practitioners and physical therapists to research and development scientists to medical device engineers, continue to find themselves in demand, as do business "turnaround" operators of all stripes.
Smaller niches, such as clean energy and broadband, may also be promising. Some fields, like public works road and bridge repair and the makers of construction equipment and materials, look to be well placed to capitalize on the expected Obama stimulus plan.
And many companies are hiring "sustainability" managers who can help them trim their budgets by using energy and materials more efficiently.
Also continuing to hire are some defense contractors, manufacturers, and government agencies, which are experiencing large numbers of retirements of veteran baby boomer employees.
"Companies are still making very targeted, very strategic hires," said Tuck Rickards, managing director at executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates in Boston.
"While they're focused on cost reduction, they also have to find where future growth opportunities are. If they're not putting some chips right down now, they're not going to be in a good position when the economy does recover," Rickards said.
For job candidates, flexibility is the watchword.
Melissa J. Webster, who plans to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management this spring, had her sights on the clean energy sector, working as a project manager for a solar or wind company. But in today's economy, she's also open to another kind of job, or a different employer.
"The kind of renewable energy company I want to work for is capital intensive and depends on something getting built, whether it's a wind farm or a solar installation," Webster said. "This is a tough time for those companies to get financing. So I might have to start working for a utility and get the kind of inside knowledge of the energy business that will make me valuable to a renewable company down the road."
Webster's flexibility, broadly shared among graduating college students and midcareer professionals seeking a job change this year, will be critical as she navigates the forbidding job market.
"We've changed from a growth market to a contraction market," said George L. Davis Jr., a Boston global managing partner for executive search firm Egon Zehnder International. "For companies, it's all about stealing market share rather than riding growth. They want people who can drive revenue and save them money."
Also being recruited are employees with "domain expertise," the knowledge, contacts, and experience that can help businesses expand into new products, business lines, or geographic markets. And while companies may be eliminating production jobs as demand slackens, they're still hiring sales and marketing crackerjacks.
Among the sectors to avoid, recruiters and outplacement managers warned, are banking, automotive, and housing, at least for the next year or two. "Financial services is very tough right now, unless you're in risk management or compliance," Davis said, citing the credit freeze, the collapse of giant investment firms, and increased regulatory scrutiny. "Traders and brokers are having the toughest time."
One factor distinguishing the current recession from past downturns is its pervasiveness. When the New England real estate bust occurred in the early 1990s, high-tech companies were still growing. And when the technology bubble burst early this decade, biotechnology and medical device firms continued to expand. Today, there are few booming sectors. "It's gridlock across the board," Davis said.
But in fields like healthcare and education, there are some countervailing trends. People are aging, getting sick, and enrolling in colleges and universities regardless of the economy. And even when they might be more cautious about hiring higher-paid doctors and professors, hospitals will hire more nurses and physician assistants, and colleges more adjunct professors and program coordinators.
Employees laid off from turbulent fields should consider "crossover" moves into more stable industries, suggested ClearRock's Chambers. "You can come out of a big financial services firm as an information technology person and go to work at Boston University and do the same thing," she said. "Whenever you can take an existing skill and apply it to a new area, that gives you a real advantage."
Rickards, at Russell Reynolds, said this may be a time for job candidates to focus on more established companies rather than gamble on risky start-ups waiting for their next venture capital round.
"The jobs are going to be at companies that are well financed, have good market positions, and are making investments in growth," he said. "They're not going to be at companies that have any kinds of financial constraints. You want to put yourself in companies that are successful, and then be successful at those companies."
But if you can't find jobs at those companies, and you can afford to wait out the grim job market for a couple of years, there's always the back-to-school option.
"Applications are going to soar" for business schools and other graduate programs, Egon Zehnder's Davis predicted. "The safe harbor in a recession is to go back and get a graduate degree."
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.