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“If a recession hits, I’m taking a job as a garbage collector,” says Trenton Wiley. “People always need the trash picked up, even in a recession.” 

Wiley lives in Baltimore and works for a rail freight company. He worries that freight volumes could shrink in a recession, putting his job at risk.

According to data from the Occupational Employment Statistics, published annually by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

• 8.7 million jobs were swept away by the Great Recession of 2007-09.

• 2.3 million were lost in the 2001 recession.

• 1.6 million were destroyed in the recession of 1990-91.

Many of the displaced workers found it difficult to find new jobs — let alone jobs that paid as much as their old ones. 

But throughout each period of labor market turbulence, some occupations weathered the storm. In fact, many added jobs — some even tens of thousands.

We analyzed data from the Occupational Employment Statistics and were able to confirm that Wiley’s intuition was correct. The number of Americans employed as “refuse and recyclable material collectors” was stable between May 2007 and May 2010, growing ever so slightly by 90 workers, or 0.07%.

Firefighters, family therapists, police officers and paramedics were recession-proof during this time, too. Wildfires, divorces, crime and accidents didn’t fall with the markets.    

Several occupations that we expected would be recession-proof were in fact quite vulnerable. The old idiom about nothing being as certain as death and taxes may be true, but funeral attendants and tax preparers suffered heavy job losses (of 9.9% and 7.9% respectively). 

Recession-proof: Occupations that added jobs during the past two recessions

OccupationGreat Recession 2001 Recession

Employment Change    % increase              Employment Change    % increase

Registered nurses          186,680  7.56%  49,860 2.28%

Home health aides         148,260  17.76% 8,550 1.52%

Personal care aides        90,680  15.23%  79,760 21.48%

Medical assistants          88,720  20.42%  31,130  9.41%

Medical secretaries        69,980  16.48% 53,050 18.74%

Nursing aides/orderlies/attendants   60,830  4.38%  55,850 4.39%

Social and human service assistants  41,120  13%  30,500 11.69%

Management analysts     36,670   7.34%  35,060   9.8%

Childcare workers          34,600   6%  58,170  14.61%

Pharmacy technicians     31,550  10.45%  16,440  8.61%

Health specialties teachers   30,710  26.92%  7,090  9.01%

Cooks, restaurant           22,320    2.54%    73,460  11.44%

Emergency medical technicians/paramedics    20,560  10.22%  13,170  7.96%

Coaches and scouts      18,870   11.41%   19,500   28.58%

Physical therapists       18,430   11.39%   9,880     8.21%

Police and sheriff’s patrol officers  18,420  2.94%   26,440   4.63%

Recreation workers     15,360  5.52%   22,210  9.04%

Cooks, institution and cafeteria    15,250  4.09%   2,610  0.63%

Pharmacists       14,920  5.89%   6,730   3.16%

Educational/guidance counselors    14,630  6.3%   20,340   10.82%

Logisticians   14,460   16.01%   No data   No data

Court, municipal, and license clerks    14,430  13.23%   1,380  1.41%

Mental health counselors    14,330  14.93%   15,250   23.18%

Physician assistants    14,260    21.23%   6,420    11.57%

Massage therapists   14,120  30.75%  2,540  10.32%

Residential advisors  13,980    27.08%   5,900  13.84%

Art/drama/music teachers   12,970   17.55%    2,970  5.38%