Most and Least Meaningful Jobs

Rick Newman

Do you do it for love? Or money?

New data from compensation-research firm Payscale finds that 58% of U.S. employees believe their work makes the world a better place. Many of those people work at relatively low-paying jobs, such as teacher, park ranger, soldier or police officer. A few professionals — mostly doctors — achieve a career twofer by working at jobs they find meaningful while also earning pay well into the six figures.

Payscale recently ranked 100 professions based on those that workers defined as most and least meaningful. Some people, including lawyers, salespeople and financial traders, work at jobs they define as satisfying but not especially meaningful — perhaps because they make a lot of money doing something that doesn’t seem to contribute much to society. The most unenviable employees may be fast-food workers, gas station attendants, baristas and others who feel their low-paying — and often minimum-wage — jobs are no more rewarding emotionally than they are financially.

Others, by contrast, do work they find meaningful, even though they earn considerably less than median pay. Payscale determines the most meaningful jobs by asking thousands of survey respondents whether their job makes the world a better place and counting those who answer “very much so” or “yes.” In all but one of the following jobs, 100% of people surveyed gave one of those two answers.

Here are the 10 jobs that landed at the top and bottom of the Payscale list:

Most Meaningful Jobs

1. Dermatologist (median annual pay: $212,900). Most doctors feel their work is meaningful, with dermatologists beating out other specialists by a few percentage points. Dermatologists may have the edge because they tend to help prevent problems such as cancer, in addition to treating them.

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2. FBI supervisory special agent ($129,400). They often race to the rescue in the movies, and FBI agents seem to feel their job is important in real life, too. SSAs are the FBI’s managers, with responsibility for other agents.

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3. Senior construction manager ($122,300). These supervisors — who are typically civil engineers — are in charge of public and private construction projects. Among other things, they’re responsible for building, maintaining and fixing the physical infrastructure that allows us to get to work and shop at the mall.

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4. Deputy fire chief ($75,300). Many civil service workers— including firefighters, cops and teachers — believe their work helps improve society. In some municipalities, the deputy fire chief focuses more on operations, while the chief handles less-desirable administrative issues and relations with political bosses.

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5. Sign language interpreter ($42,100). These interpreters might sign a university lecture for deaf students or work one-on-one with clients the way a home health aide does. Many are self-employed contractors who work as-needed.

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6. Rehabilitation equipment specialist ($40,200). These technicians maintain and repair the machines that help injured or debilitated people recover and regain functionality, literally helping people get back on their feet.

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7. Child life specialist ($39,000). These workers are part counselor, part social worker, often working with struggling kids in schools, hospitals or private settings. Some hold a master’s degree but it’s usually not required.

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8. Worship coordinator ($38,000). It takes effort to organize church events, arrange choir practice, make sure the leaflets get distributed at every service and shepherd the flock. These religious factotums are usually lay people working full-time for the church.

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9. Water plant technician or operator ($36,000). Most of us take clean water for granted, yet those whose job it is to keep the water supply safe take pride in doing something that’s vital to society.

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10. Certified nurse midwife ($85,200; percentage who find the job meaningful: 98%). What’s more meaningful than delivering babies? Nurse midwives are usually RNs with additional training that allows them to oversee births without a doctor present — while enjoying some of the same on-the-job rewards that doctors do.

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Least Meaningful Jobs
In a tough economy, some people are lucky to have any job at all. Still, people with some jobs often seem to wonder, what’s the point? Here are the jobs with the lowest proportion of people saying their job makes the world a better place:

1. Gas station attendant (median annual pay: $17,100; percentage who find the job meaningful: 4%). This is often a minimum-wage job with no perks and unpleasant work conditions. With drivers able to fuel their own cars in nearly every state, it’s also nearly obsolete.

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2. Graphic artist/animator ($45,700; 4%). The job title might make you think of Disney or Pixar, but most graphic artists these days work in advertising, marketing, PR or website development, doing commercial work that artistes might consider lowbrow. “There might be a little bit of self-hatred going on here,” says Katie Bardaro, lead economist at Payscale.

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3. Gaming dealer ($35,500; 7%). They might seem cool and indifferent behind the table, but the dealers who run blackjack and other casino games seem to realize how disastrous gambling can be for some unlucky players. More than 18% of dealers say their job makes the world a worse place, compared with about 1% for all workers on average.

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4. TV news director ($34,500; 8%). It’s no secret that viewers have gotten turned off by the shallowness and sensationalism of much TV news. The people who produce it may be starting to feel the same way.

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5. Revenue analyst ($46,000; 8%). These money hunters seek new ways for their firms to boost revenue, from raising prices to peddling new products. Improving humanity is apparently one innovation few firms are pursuing.

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6. Airline reservation agent ($28,700; 9%). If you think the glamour has gone out of flying, imagine how the people who handle your bookings and complaints must feel. Besides, reservation agents are another profession made nearly obsolete by the Internet.

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7. Coffee shop manager ($27,500; 9%). Americans might love coffee, but they don’t really need it. Like many other workers at the lower end of the food industry, coffee-shop managers don’t feel they make much of a difference.

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8. Web operations coordinator ($37,400; 9%). These workers oversee the various Web products of a given company to make sure there are no bugs and everything is properly coordinated. This involves a lot of troubleshooting to keep commerce flowing — but few psychic rewards.

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9. Associate fashion designer ($50,700; 9%). Fashion professionals tend to like what they do while also acknowledging the controversy over body-image issues in young women that’s tied to their industry. That generates a huge disparity between the percentage of fashion designers who find the work satisfying —73%— and the meager 9% who say the work is meaningful.

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10. Laundry manager ($57,400; 9%). If you’ve never heard anybody brag about their job running a laundromat, it’s because the work is mundane and there are growing concerns about the chemicals used in detergent. At least they can say one thing others can’t: Everything comes out clean in the end.


Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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