Chin up: The few, the proud, the holdouts

March 8, 2010

CAREERS ISSUE

The Boston Globe

Some fields are thinning fast, but if – like these intrepid folks – you’ve got drive, flexibility, and a competitive spirit, you can endure in the job you love.

 

After more than 20 years in the wholesale fruit business, Tom Belluardo’s career had stalled. With prospects for promotion dim, he decided to learn an occupation that offered more potential: cobbler.

You might not expect a lot of demand for a shoe-repair guy in a world where people toss out footwear nearly as often as they change socks. But there is some demand – enough for Belluardo to secure a slice of a niche business for the last two decades. His Methuen shop, The Town Cobbler, thrives on a base of customers that prefers to get quality shoes fixed instead of tromping around in cheap plastic heels with the life expectancy of paper coffee filters.

“Women don’t come in with just one pair,” he says. “They bring them in shopping bags. They say to me, ‘Please, don’t ever retire.’ ”

Belluardo, 61, has achieved what career counselors and economists say anyone working in a waning profession must strive for – continued relevancy by excelling in a specialized field or providing a human touch that’s superior to automation. His success offers hope for others whose paycheck doesn’t come from being a biomedical engineer, home health aide, data communications analyst, or any of the other jobs the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will be hot through 2018. In its latest outlook report, the bureau offers assurance that career paths in industries that are receding or growing only sluggishly are not all headed off a cliff. But making it in a shrinking field will take razor-sharp skills, a shark-like appetite for competition, and motivation rooted in genuine interest. Put another way: If you don’t love your uncertain occupation, start divorce proceedings with it now.

 

Andrew Brown, president of Career Ventures, a jobs-counseling company in Boston, says he doesn’t necessarily try to steer clients from entering or staying in unstable professions. “I put all the pieces on the table so they can objectively look at it,” he says. “If they’re really interested, I won’t tell someone not to do something, because they may be a real driver, they may get ahead of the curve. I say, ‘Look at who you are and what’s going to keep the passion there. If you like it, if you’re enthusiastic, you’ll make it.’ ”

 

But it might be nerve-rattling. Historically steady lines of work have eroded in recent years. The nation’s employment landscape has undergone “radical change,” according to Paul Harrington, associate director of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies. The same high-tech wizardry that lets people carry music collections on wafer-thin devices is also putting more of these people on unemployment. Routine jobs such as file clerk and receptionist are being rendered obsolete by technology that gets cheaper and faster by the month. A broad swath of US manufacturing positions and other blue-collar jobs has also been wiped out. Harrington sums up the trend this way: “Stuff that’s easily computerized will just be done on a computer.” Simultaneously, however, the electronic economy is creating a wave of sophisticated customer-service positions. For instance, as paper medical records are digitized, more people will find work maintaining and managing online systems for hospitals and insurers. Such super-clerk positions “are jobs that require a little bit more skill, a little bit more savvy,”

 

Other jobs that might seem as unnecessary in 2010 as a VCR technician can actually complement technology. For instance, ATMs, direct deposit, and online accounts make it possible for many people to avoid bank lobbies, but you will still find tellers behind counter windows, often helping customers navigate all those self-serve tools. Their ranks are expected to increase by 6 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with the 8.2 percent job-growth rate projected for the overall US workforce.March 7, 2010

 

Melissa Reardon became a Salem Five teller eight years ago, when online banking was starting to take hold. Long-term prospects did not factor into her decision. “I was good at math, and it was about a mile from my house,” the 27-year-old says. It turned out to be a smart career move. Today, Reardon manages Salem Five’s main office. “The typical teller’s position is no longer mostly about cashing a check or making deposits and withdrawals,” she says. “There’s an expectation that they will be able to answer questions like ‘How does my debit card work around the world?’ It’s customer service.

 

”Basic functions once handled by travel agents, such as booking flights and hotel rooms, have become self-serve consumer tasks. Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, and other websites have helped speed thousands of travel agencies to their final destinations -- there are about 16,000 in the United States, down from 37,000 in 1995, according to Bill Maloney, chief executive of the American Society of Travel Agents. Despite the numbers, Maloney believes there is still a future in the travel business. People will happily pay for assistance in planning eco tours, destination weddings, reunions, and other complicated specialty excursions, he says

.

“We’ve done a terrible job of selling this profession,” says Maloney. “If I told somebody you should look into a job that’s on the cutting edge of technology and involves both consumers and suppliers, people would be interested. If I told them there’s the flexibility to work from anywhere and literally go anywhere, they’d get excited. Travel agents today don’t all have stores, but they all have websites, they all have blogs... There are just fewer traditional jobs

 

”That suits Carolina Murillo, leisure district manager for Garber Travel in Chestnut Hill. “Travel agents used to be order takers,” she says. “We’ve become destination specialists. People want to talk to an expert, someone who’s been there. It’s not where can I go and what can I do, it’s what can I experience.

 

”To stand out, an agent needs a college degree in marketing, geography, or cultural studies such as sociology or anthropology, Murillo says. Speaking a foreign language and being well traveled helps, and savviness about social media is mandatory.

 

Librarians, too, must prove themselves more valuable than a search engine if they are to remain employed over the next decade. While openings are predicted to increase by about 8 percent between 2008 and 2018, most new jobs will be at consulting firms, corporations, and nonprofits that need people who know their way around sophisticated databases. And only top-tier candidates will get hired. “The technology makes it much more skill-intensive,” says Northeastern’s Harrington. “This isn’t the lady who made sure you brought the books back.

 

”At Newbury Comics, co-owner Mike Dreese has been adapting for more than 30 years, regularly tweaking his marketing focus to keep pace with customers’ changing habits. The 28-store regional chain offers a case study in how to maintain altitude in a free-falling industry – retail music. While national companies became dinosaurs after the dawn of the iPod age in 2001, Newbury Comics perseveres. “We’ve always innovated around the fun stuff,” Dreese explains. CDs and DVDs still account for about 65 percent of revenue, “but it’s other things that make us an attraction, like comics and collectable action figures you can’t find at Wal-Mart.” Two minutes into a conversation, Dreese is already revved up, speaking with the same zeal that drove him when he hawked Joy Division and Jam import records from Newbury Comics’ original Back Bay store.

 

Others who are determined to stick with struggling industries because they crave the challenge, not out of desperation, seem to share that kind of intensity. “It’s about survival of the fiscally fittest and the most adaptable,” says Garber Travel’s Murillo. “I see opportunity all the time. If there’s less travel agents, I become more in demand."

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