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Trapped in a Dying Industry?

Here’s how to know whether to ride out tough times, reinvent your role, or switch fields.


by Elaine Pofeldt

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Acting boldly may be required if your industry is on the sick list. When Jeff Gruninger, 47, got laid off from his job as a construction supervisor at a residential home building firm in November 2006—and then, in 2008, from an interim job he’d taken in a cabinetry shop to make ends meet—he’d had enough of the ups and downs of the building industry. “That was the breaking point for me,” recalls the father of four from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. “I wasn’t fulfilled anymore. I was frustrated with not being able to find work.”

Gruninger didn’t hesitate to make a big move. In January 2008, he enrolled at Montgomery County Community College in an associate’s degree program to become a certified surgical technologist, taking out $30,000 in student loans. He graduated in December 2011 and within three months got a job at a local surgical center. Today, he works at Physicians Care Surgical Hospital in Royersford, Pennsylvania, where he has matched the salary he earned in construction.

Even with the job market improving in recent months, some industries haven’t bounced back completely—leaving many Americans unsure what their next career move should be. If your industry was hit hard, it can be tough to figure out whether you should ride things out or try something new because your industry may never fully rebound. “You have to do some research to know the answer,” says Bettina Seidman, a career management and executive coach with Seidebet Associates. Here are some tips on how to figure out what a decline in your industry means, and how to strengthen your position for the future, if need be.

Look at employment trends. It’s hard to miss the fact that some industries are declining, even dying. Now that many people have switched from mailing letters to sending emails, for instance, it’s no surprise that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a big decline in postal-service jobs. But in many fields, it can be hard to tell the difference between a temporary slow period and an ongoing shakeout. For clues on where your industry is heading, check out the bureau’s Employment Outlook report, which offers predictions on growth and decline for major occupations for the period from 2010 to 2020.

Even if you suffered a layoff at your last company, you may be able to do the same type of work for another firm in your field—or in a different industry—as long as there’s still a need for people with your skill set, notes Seidman. Instead of assuming you have to undertake a radical career overhaul, she advises, “look at the minimum changes you can make, first.”

Consider your own staying power. Beyond conditions in your industry, it’s important to think about your own long-term prospects in the field. While Gruninger wasn’t having any trouble keeping up with the physical demands of his job, he could foresee a point in the future where, even if he got another job in his field, employers might eventually want to replace him with a less experienced worker who commanded a lower salary. “I didn’t see a solid future in construction,” he says. It’s also possible that jobs in your particular niche are dwindling—perhaps due to automation—even if there’s lots of opportunity in your industry for people with other skills.

Try rebranding yourself. Before you give up on your existing field, consider whether your skills apply to new types of work that are developing in your industry, advises executive coach Andrea Nierenberg, principal of the Nierenberg Group in New York City. For instance, as jobs for newspaper reporters have shrunk, many of them have jumped to digital publications, where their writing and reporting skills are still relevant.

If you’re looking to reposition yourself in a more tech-oriented niche in your field, rewrite your resume in such a way that younger managers, who may not be familiar with the type of work you did years ago, can understand how it relates to current projects. Often, says Nierenberg, “it’s about describing your skills in today’s jargon.” Joining a LinkedIn group for people in the field you want to enter will familiarize you with the latest terms people are using in their conversations.

Don’t undervalue your experience. If you’ve reached a senior title in a career specialty that is, alas, fading, you may be able to stay at that level of seniority if you move to a new field--as long as your skills are relevant in your new gig. “You don’t have to start over from the bottom,” says Seidman. Rather than take an internship to make the transition, can you persuade a new employer that your experience is relevant in a higher-level gig. When Seidman advised a group of displaced insurance underwriters in an outplacement program on how to market themselves to employers, she encouraged them to look for ways to show that their operational and administrative experience was relevant in other fields. “It’s a matter of not looking at things in black and white,” she says. A recent survey by Right Management found that 42% of North American workers who got a new job since 2010 had changed industries, and 40% jumped into a new job function in order to do so. 

Build a support system. If you do decide to make a big change, it may take help from those around you.Gruninger and his wife, Shannon, a quality engineer senior manager at Dell, pulled together as a team so he could switch careers. They decided she would support the family while he took care of the younger two of their four sons, who still lived at home. When she finished work, he’d go to school at night. It wasn’t easy to get everything done, but Gruninger says it was worth it. “I have absolutely no regrets,” he says. “I’m very happy.”

Elaine Pofeldt is co-editor of the $200KFreelancer, a site aimed at helping independent professionals earn a good living.

Photo: Mario Loiselle/Getty Images