Career Advice for Those With Vanishing Professions


The "Plan B" storyline of "30 Rock" surely resonated with millions of the unemployed. In this episode, comedy writer Liz Lemon discovers that she is the only one among her coworkers who has no alternative plan for employment when her show (TGS with Tracy Jordan) is placed on "forced hiatus." As she frets about her future, she encounters a travel agent and other shadowy people whose professions are no longer a "thing." (See also: Contingency Plans)

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Many people find themselves in similar circumstances to Liz. Their former professions and industries are vanishing.

Some jobs (independent travel agents, for example, as mentioned in "30 Rock") have nearly disappeared, but the industry itself is still thriving. Some industries are dying, though the professional disciplines within those industries are still viable.

According to a report by IBIS World, the top 10 dying industries include:

  • Wired telecommunications
  • Newspaper publishing
  • Mills
  • Photofinishing
  • Apparel manufacturing

The decline of apparel manufacturing has been most evident to me. For many years, I worked with professionals who have experienced near-constant turmoil in this industry. On a regular basis, local plants were closed. At first, manufacturing activities were moved to company-owned facilities offshore, and then outsourced to third-party trading agents and vendors overseas.

Studying the paths of people in many disciplines (operations management, merchandising, design, engineering, sourcing, etc.), and observing changes in companies' organizational structures have given me insights into ways of preserving, advancing, and realigning careers in changing conditions.

Here are steps to take if your profession or industry is disappearing.

Transfer Your Skills to a New Industry

Start by researching new fields and identifying skills needed to excel in specific positions. Pinpoint industries that are growing and hold interest for you. Arrange informational interviews or simply talk with friends who have expertise in your targeted fields. Listen as your contacts describe their work; then brainstorm ways to transfer your skills to new industries. Supplement your research by reading online postings and studying industry news to get an a feel for high-demand positions and their requirements.

Next, convince potential employers that you have the skills they need without confusing them about your past experiences. Translate your existing skills into terms that hiring managers can understand. If in doubt, use plain language to give an accurate portrayal of your strengths rather than unintentionally distorting or overstating capabilities.

Specific tips for job-search documents (such as resumes, letters, and online profiles):

  • Substitute standard word use for industry and company lingo
  • Reframe accomplishments in terms that an outsider can understand
  • Avoid the purely functional resume that highlights skills but obscures work history (see why I don't recommend a functional resume)
  • Use a chronological resume or combo chronological/functional resume to place skills into context and show career progression

Move to a Different Country

Leaving the country for a job may seem like a dramatic move. This option may be unrealistic due to personal issues. But industries disappearing here may be expanding in developing countries, creating opportunities for those willing to relocate to another part of the world.

For example, many U.S.-based plant managers and engineers in apparel manufacturing accepted jobs doing nearly identical work overseas when manufacturing shifted to new locations. Or they leveraged existing skills to new roles in sourcing, production management, product development, and social compliance.

Go Back to School

Figure out whether you want to reinvent yourself completely or make some modifications. Think about the time and money you are willing and able to invest for the purpose of getting yourself ready for a new profession or industry. Depending on your goals, you may:

  • Freshen your skills, which may involve taking a computer class to broaden your knowledge of technology-based applications
  • Finish your degree, if you left college short of graduation
  • Earn credentials in a specialized area, such as project management
  • Completely change directions; start a career in nursing after working in manufacturing, for example

Career counseling (typically free at community colleges) can help you to make decisions about what types of education and training to pursue. To minimize expenses associated with going back to school, apply for scholarships available to non-traditional students.

Take a Lousy Job

Taking an average job with great benefits may be a possibility, but such positions seem to be non-existent right now. So, you may need to accept a lousy job to help pay the bills while you reinvent or update yourself. Be strategic to get yourself ready for the next job. For example, take an entry-level job in your target industry.

Wait Until Your Job Resurfaces

I know this approach sounds crazy, but some professions do resurface.

For example, apparel patternmakers nearly became extinct. People in these positions interpreted creative designs into patterns for use by manufacturing, plus they assured proper fit. But when plants were closed locally, their jobs began to disappear. However, as garment fit became more prominent as a brand differentiator, demand for patternmakers began to increase — until more industry changes diverted this role to overseas vendors.

Likewise, retail sales associates are disappearing from the employment landscape as shoppers turn to online stores. But as boutique shops and luxury sellers re-discover that high-touch service can garner premium prices and generate high profits, demand for amazing retail sales professionals may grow.

Continue Searching for an Opening in Your Profession

There may be a couple of openings in your profession or industry now, either with companies who maintained traditional positions or because the professions have resurfaced. Such positions may be tough to land because of stiff competition from experienced professionals. Be careful to evaluate the long-term viability of these potential employers — they may be run by visionaries who can channel your strengths in a new direction, or they may be getting ready to shut their doors, forcing you to look for another job again soon.

Do a Combination of the Above

Moving from a vanishing profession to a vibrant one isn't easy. Based on my observations, those who made the most successful transitions leveraged high-demand and highly transferable skills (relationship building, vendor evaluation, decision making, staff management, and leadership); took risks with start-ups, turnarounds, or companies moving overseas; and continually developed their capabilities. Plus, they were always plotting Plan B.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I grew up in an area mostly supported by paper mills. As the mills closed down, pretty much everyone I know who stayed in the industry moved elsewhere.

Has anyone tried these techniques? What were the results? Do you have a Plan B in place?