During a recession, some jobs survive — and thrive

College instructors needed as enrollment jumps in downturn

It started three years ago this month. And, like the worst of floods, recession rushed through the labor market, growing in force until it had ravaged all but a few patches of high ground.

From tellers to truckers, from real estate to retail, positions vanished by the millions beneath the torrent, and unemployment rose. Sector after sector suffered in a downturn that was both broad and deep, said University of Georgia economist Jeff Wenger.

Between December 2007 and the weak job expansion that began in early 2010, a stunning 8.36 million jobs in the U.S. were washed away, including 347,800 in Georgia. Yet the numbers do show places where there was job growth despite the recession — or even partly because of it.

Rick Nelson of Cumming is standing on one of those dry spots.

Following a three-decade career in corporate America, Nelson lost his job when his company was acquired. After pondering his future for nearly a year — and rejecting the idea of retirement – he came across a help-wanted ad for the Chattahoochee Technical College.

It’s not that the technical school sector has defied the recession — it has been swept along by it. Among the other lonely exceptions: federal government and health care jobs.

Typically, when unemployment goes up, so do student enrollments. For those laid off, those coming out of high school and those who have been out of the workforce awhile, improving skills is seen as a way to improve the odds of landing a job. And, as enrollment climbs, so does demand for instructors.

By the time Nelson had an interview, the economy was slowing. Students were pouring into the state’s technical schools, either because they couldn’t find jobs or were looking for new skills. So, the position Nelson was applying for was upgraded from adjunct to full-time.

He is now a lead instructor in marketing, taking on administrative chores as well as teaching four classes. “I feel like there’s an opportunity to keep doing this over the longer-term — as long as I’m doing a good job, and I’m perceived as doing a good job,” Nelson said. “Our school is booming.”

The Georgia technical college system now boasts 192,000 students, a 45,000 increase over 2007, said spokesman Mike Light.

Enrollment at Chattahoochee Tech, the largest of the schools, grew 25 percent in both 2008 and 2009, then 17 percent in the past year, said college spokeswoman Jennifer Nelson, who is no relation to the instructor.

Counting adjunct instructors, Chattahoochee Tech had 264 faculty members in mid-2009. The school now has 390 faculty members — a 48 percent increase.

The downturn meant dramatically lower tax revenues, so budgets for the state’s schools have been under duress. Despite that pressure, schools have often expanded by hiring more lower-cost adjuncts than full-time faculty members. Most of the new instructors at Chattahoochee Tech are adjuncts.

Salaries range from $45,000 to $105,792, said Jennifer Nelson. And, while even that upper end would be a step down for many corporate executives, the field is one of the few that grew right through the recession and beyond.

Health care jobs were steadily growing long before the recession, and the downturn did not dampen that demand, said UGA’s Wenger. “Health care is a juggernaut. People get sick and they need services, regardless of what is happening with the economy.”

And health care has become an increasingly important part of the labor market, both nationally and in Georgia. Overall, roughly 13.9 million people work in the health care field, about 400,000 of them in Georgia, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That means health care counts for slightly more than 10 percent of the jobs in the state. Of those, hospitals alone account for about one-third. The number of health care jobs here has been growing pretty steadily for the past two decades — an increase of about 90 percent overall. Hospital jobs had a dip in the late 1990s, but have grown since then.

Laura Colbert, 25, recently received a masters’ degree in public health from Emory’s Rollins School. She recalls sitting next to a fellow student who was online on the fall day in 2008 when the stock market crashed. “My classmate looked over and said, ‘We are in trouble,’” she said.

Worried about being caught in the downturn, the school encouraged students to start applying for jobs early — as much as 10 months before graduation. Colbert sent out 40 or 50 applications, heard back from 10 and was given interviews with a trio.

This fall, Children’s Healthcare offered her a job as coordinator for a new community program.

“I feel good at the end of the day about what I am doing,” she said. “And I feel like health care — more than any other field — is very secure.”

The hospital, which has about 7,500 employees, has been hiring in a host of areas, according to Megan Graham, vice president of workforce strategy and planning.

The hospital is adding people like Colbert to run programs, counsel children, offer analysis of research, translate from various languages and provide technology and financial expertise. “This year, our focus is in the community,” Graham said. “It’s not about ‘where can we drive revenues.’”

Mostly to fill open positions, Children’s this year is hiring about 350 nurses, she said.

Health care expansion means more than just medical jobs, said Dan Campbell, chief executive of Duluth-based staffing firm Hire Dynamics. When a sector grows, there is hiring for all the skills needed to keep it functioning and improve its efficiency: “Information technology for health care is white hot,” he said.

That has likewise rippled into growth for many staffing companies: Campbell says his company has expanded by about 20 percent in the past year.

Uncle Sam also turned out to be a harbor for many job seekers. After declining through much of the 1990s, rising then flattening out after 2001, federal government payrolls started rising again in early 2006.

With the ability to run deficits, the feds hired through the recession. About 2.8 million people now work for the federal government, counting postal workers. In Georgia, about 100,500 people work for the federal government, up about 5 percent from pre-recession levels.

“Throughout the recession, we continued to get requests for particular skills, government-type positions especially,” said Allison Gross, Atlanta-based vice president of Comforce, a national staffing company.

The strongest demand has come in technology jobs that require top-secret clearance, she said. “It is very difficult to find the combination of skills and clearance.”

While economists say deficits must eventually be paid for, that hiring puts more money into the economy when private sector demand is down.

Meanwhile, state and local government, which started the recession with job growth, started shipping out jobs in the past year. Those losses, including once-safe teacher positions, were forced by an unusual quirk of the recession: the fall of real estate values, said economist Tom Smith of Emory’s Goizueta School of Business.

“Typically in a recession, you still see wealth growth in real estate,” he said. “But this recession was highlighted by real estate losses and the decline of tax revenues from property.”

The falling financial tide in real estate did create some demand for some very specific skills: Foreclosure experts, repo men, resume writers. Unfortunately, their numbers have been far too small to soak up many job seekers.

In a workforce of nearly 150 million people, only a broad recovery can help.