Job Satisfaction or Long-term Job Stability? Turns Out It’s Hard to Have Both

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Would you rather have a career that makes you one of the most in-demand workers in the economy of tomorrow, or one that leaves you deeply satisfied when the work day is done? Two new surveys rank careers on these criteria and, indeed, it looks one needs to make a choice: Almost no careers ranked high on both lists. 

A quick scan down’s ranking of the top jobs for 2013 based on growth shows that the most in-demand jobs generally involve working with numbers, computers, or both. Software developer is the top gig, followed by accountant.

On the other hand, a similar proportion of the most satisfying jobs — as self-reported by nearly 14,000 users of the career site — overwhelmingly involve working with people. Teachers, doctors, counselors … the options couldn’t be more different than CareerBuilder’s list.

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The comparison isn’t exactly apples to apples because CareerBuilder’s list focuses on the top jobs for college graduates with bachelors’ degrees. The jobs on MyPlan’s list run the gamut, with the top spot going to “singer.” Still, it seems clear that people get the most job-related satisfaction out of interacting with other people. And animals: Two of the top 20 jobs are animal-care supervisor and vet tech.

The difference stems from the fact that people-focused jobs enable workers to get positive feedback on a regular basis, says John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Money’s not the motivator,” he says. “It doesn’t compare with knowing that you made someone’s life better.”

While clients, patients, and students can drive you crazy, they can also say thanks or let you know how you made a difference in their lives. At times, you even get to see the positive differences you’ve made in their lives, say, when a former student starts a company or lands a dream job. You don’t get that if your job entails staring at a screen all day. It’s equally unlikely a spreadsheet will ever give you a thumbs-up.

For more evidence, consider this: The second-highest job in MyPlan’s satisfaction survey is fire fighter. Risking your life running into burning buildings wouldn’t necessarily seem to be inherently satisfying, but it speaks to the power of positive feedback and the internal sense that what you’re doing is worthwhile. “It’s another level of value,” Challenger says. The holiday bonus or “attaboy” email you get from your boss can’t hold a candle to the sense of purpose fire fighters get from saving people’s lives.

Of course, whether or not success and satisfaction are mutually exclusive is debatable. You could argue that a career in a rapidly growing field will be inherently satisfying because jobs will be easy to come by, the work itself will evolve with the times and be exciting, and companies will compete for the best people with big salaries and perks. Part of what makes a job satisfying is the possibility of earning a decent living; the corresponding list of least satisfying careers from MyPlan is loaded with jobs at or near the bottom of the pay scale, including maids, food service workers, and telemarketers.

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But simply making good bank doesn’t cut it. Feeling good about your job trumps other career-related motivators, a survey about workforce retention conducted earlier this year on behalf of the American Psychological Association found. More than half the respondents said they stay at their jobs because their work “gives me the opportunity to make a difference.” The top reasons people gave for staying with their current employers — even above pay and benefits — were enjoying the work and feeling like their jobs fit into the rest of their lives. The longer people planned to stay at their jobs, the more likely they were to say that their job gives them the opportunity to make a difference, the survey found.

As the labor market rebounds, this is something employers may want to address. Offering more money might attract top candidates, but getting them to stay is going to take a strategy that focuses more on the intangible rewards of a job well done.