Beware of Falling Trees: The Best and Worst Jobs in America

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Lumberjacks are celebrated in folklore (hello, Paul Bunyan) and in song (hello Monty Python), but as a career choice lumberjacking leaves something to be desired. At least according to the Jobs Rated 2012 report released earlier this week by CareerCast.com, which ranked lumberjack as the worst job in America. Logging is physically demanding; the pay is modest; unemployment in the industry is high, and it’s dangerous work; it’s one of the few jobs in which you have to regularly worry about trees falling on top of you.

At the top of the job heap? Software engineers, who make great money sitting on their behinds in environments in which falling trees are rare. Rounding out the top five list this year: actuary, human resource manager, dental hygienist, and financial planner. Other highly-ranked jobs include mathematician, chiropractor, podiatrist, and museum curator.

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The worst ten jobs include waiter/waitress, dishwasher, dairy farmer, enlisted soldier, and newspaper reporter. The low ranking for the latter – due to job stress, long hours, and crappy job prospects — inspired the San Francisco Chronicle reporter covering the survey to sniff that “we’ll at least be grateful that wood chippers and cow smells aren’t a regular part of our day.”

So how did the CareerCasters arrive at these rankings – and do they really make much sense? The survey’s methodology is complex, even a bit convoluted.  Jobs are rated according to a number of categories, including environment (working conditions), income (and income potential), outlook (how plentiful jobs are now and will be in the future), as well as how stressful and physically demanding they are.

Despite the elaborate effort expended to make the survey as objective as possible, some of the results are a little, well, unexpected. Dental hygienists rank much higher on the list (#4) than dentists (#33), though hygienists make only about half of what their bosses make. Similarly, pharmacists score much better than doctors. It’s striking how often physically demanding blue-collar jobs score better than higher paying white-collar ones. Bricklayers score higher than corporate executives, while attorneys (#87) only barely outrank vending machine repairpeople (#88).

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It’s also a one-size-fits all approach, which tacitly assumes that everyone is looking for the same things in a job. Which just isn’t true. Actuaries may make a good living working in an environment that’s clean and safe from wild animals and toxic fumes, but – sorry, actuaries – I think I would expire from boredom crunching numbers all day long. Jobs in which one has to deal with the public on a regular basis lose points for that, but some people (believe it or not) actually enjoy working with people all day. Many people feel happy and fulfilled in jobs that rank low in the survey, while others are miserable doing jobs that the survey suggests are objectively much better.

The more one pokes into the methodology of the survey, the weirder some of the assumptions behind it look. The more physically demanding a job is, the worse it scores. But are completely sedentary jobs really inherently better than jobs which require you to get up and wander around at least once in a while?

Meanwhile, in the “stress” category, for example, you can score more stress points (a bad thing, for this survey) for having daily deadlines than you can for being in a job in which people are literally shooting at you.

Thing is, some of us like regular deadlines, while very few like getting shot at. Deadlines focus the mind; they help to organize your work day. I’d much rather face daily deadlines than the risk of being shot, or eaten by a crocodile.

I’d tell you more about the wonders of deadlines, but I really need to file this story, like, now.

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