Is A Tough Job a Bad One?

Published on: 14:30PM Jan 14, 2011

The website recently issued its ranking of the 200 best and worst jobs.  The site’s conclusions are derived from a combination of factors, including income, working environment, stress, physical demands and job outlook, using data from the Labor Dept., the U.S. Census, and their researchers' own expertise.

Using those criteria, the #1 best job is:  software engineer.  CareerCast says it’s low stress, not physically demanding, pays decently, and is in growing demand.  I think most of that sounds reasonable, although anyone who’s ever had to deal with a balky PC, or computer application, knows that software is never entirely stress-free.  And given the penchant for software companies to offshore some of their code writing (there’s even a TV show now called “Outsourced” that takes place in Mumbai), I also wonder about the whole job security and growth potential issue for some in the IT sector.

More to the point, dairy farmer came in near the last, at #184 out of 200.  The physical demands in four seasons of weather, and often volatile economic returns, made it rather unattractive compared to most other options.  At least it was a little more palatable than the worst of the worst:  roofer, lumberjack, iron worker and roustabout (CareerCast calls these and others in the bottom 10 “low-paid, dangerous and unpleasant.”).

Painters, welders, construction workers and stevedores were also in the bottom 20.  And perhaps curiously, so were some decidedly non-blue collar, roughneck jobs:  #188 newspaper reporter and #185 photojournalist (jobs that pay poorly and are shrinking like a raisin) and #195 EMT (also curious, in that while it’s stressful, there will always be accidents and medical emergencies – go figure).

And this brings me to the point about what may be missing from this analysis:  a consideration of a career’s sense of purpose, that is, whether such a job brings meaning to one’s life.  Many dairy farmers, even with all of the stresses and demands on their jobs, love farming precisely because it does offer physical challenges, gives them access to nature, and helps them feed the world.  Likewise, I have known EMTs who certainly see their jobs as providing a life or death service.  They love it because the stresses it produces mean a life is on the line, not in spite of that fact. 

Contrast those with others in the top 5:  mathematician, actuary, statistician.  These are highly-skilled, technically-challenging positions, but are also the quintessential paper-pushing (or spreadsheet-entering) desk jobs.  Ironically, actuarial forecasts are also all about life or death, but in an abstract, bloodless fashion. 

So can we assume that there’s more to life than a rosy economic outlook?  At least people need natural resources, food and housing.