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America’s Most (and Least) Common Jobs


The job market is an important indicator of the economy’s health. A look at the most and least common jobs reflects the industries that are critical to the economy, as well as those that are gaining prominence, or becoming obsolete.

According to Martin Kohli, chief regional economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), industry growth trends play a significant role in driving job totals. Workers in the nation’s most popular occupations “are employed in industries that have also been expanding,” Kohli said. Food preparers, one of the most common jobs, are in food services, an expanding industry according to Kohli. Similarly, the number of registered nurses is keeping pace with the growing health care field.

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By contrast, many of the nation’s least common jobs are in industries that are far smaller than they once were, such as the manufacturing sector. Many of these jobs, Kohli added, “are clearly on the decline because the industries that employ them are, and the technologies they use, are on the decline.”

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In fact, several rare occupations are expected to shrink considerably. The BLS currently estimates that the number of animal breeders will fall by 23% between 2012 and 2022, while the number of fabric menders will drop by 10%. The number of radio operators and wood patternmakers is expected to be effectively flat, even as the number of total jobs is projected to rise by 11% in that time.

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Still, some of these uncommon jobs do have growth potential and include relatively high salaries. The average geographer earned more than $75,000 annually as of 2013, and the average industrial-organizational psychologist earned nearly $88,000 annually. The BLS forecasts that these jobs will grow by 29% and 53%, respectively, between 2012 and 2022

In contrast, the nation’s most common jobs tended to pay low wages. Cashiers, waiters and waitresses, and food preparation workers -- all among the nation’s most common jobs -- earned, on average, less than $25,000 annually. By comparison, the average U.S. worker earned more than $46,000 per year. Among the nation’s 10 most common occupations, only registered nurses earned an average salary above the national average for all jobs.

Most of the country’s most common jobs require little in the way of a formal education. For example, food preparers often do not need a high school diploma and require little training. Other common jobs such as janitors, cashiers and retail salespersons also typically do not need higher education or substantial experience.

The most common jobs also offer few opportunities for advancement. And while there may well be exceptions, Kohli added that people “don’t think of many of these jobs -- such as cashier or retail salesperson -- as having a career ladder that would lead to a higher-paid job.” Additionally, these jobs are typically not unionized, which may also contribute to lower wages, said Kohli.

To determine the nation’s most and least common jobs, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed figures published by the BLS’ Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) on occupational employment and wages for more than 800 professions. These figures reflect data as of May 2013. We also reviewed employment forecasts from the Bureau’s Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections. These projections forecast changes in employment, by occupation, between 2012 and 2022. Finally, we reviewed descriptive information on occupations from the Bureau’s Occupational Outlook Handbook as well as O*NET OnLine. Because OES figures do not account for self-employed workers, occupations were excluded if other industry information indicated OES totals may be incomplete estimates.

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These are America’s most and least common jobs.

The Most Common Jobs

10. Janitors and cleaners
> Total number of jobs: 2.1 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 12.1%
> Average annual income: $25,140

The number of janitors is expected to grow by 12% between 2012 and 2022, according to the BLS, roughly in line with the 10.8% projected growth rate for all jobs in the U.S. Becoming a janitor typically does not require a college education. The average annual salary for a janitor, however, is lower than most occupations that the BLS examines. The average janitor earned $25,140 in 2012, well below the U.S. average of $46,440.

9. Secretaries and administrative assistants
> Total number of jobs: 2.2 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 13.2%
> Average annual income: $34,000

Already one of the nation’s most common jobs, the number of secretaries is projected to grow even larger. The BLS forecasts a 13.2% increase between 2012 and 2022, only slightly higher than the nationwide job growth rate of 10.8%. However, positions are not usually high paying. Secretaries and administrative assistants earned an average of $34,000 as of 2013, less than the U.S. average of $46,440 across all occupations.

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8. Hand laborers and material movers
> Total number of jobs: 2.3 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 11.0%
> Average annual income: $26,690

Movers typically work in settings such as warehouses, where they pack, transport, and take inventory of goods that pass through. Oftentimes, the job requirements are based less on education, or training, and more on physical ability. According to the BLS, increasing consumer spending will continue to drive the need for warehousing. While this means increased need for movers, some of the potential increase may be offset by greater automation of some operations. Many of these jobs are often low paying. Movers earned an average of just under $13 an hour -- or less than $27,000 -- last year.

7. Customer service representatives
> Total number of jobs: 2.4 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 12.6%
> Average annual income: $33,370

Customer service representatives handle customer questions and complaints, primarily over the phone. Pay is often low for customer service representatives, who earned an average of $33,370 as of 2013, versus a nationwide average of more than $46,000. Opportunities to earn more in the profession are somewhat limited. The top-paid 10% of all customer service representatives earned more than $50,570, versus more than $88,000 annually for the top 10% of all workers.

6. Waiters and waitresses
> Total number of jobs: 2.4 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 5.6%
> Average annual income: $20,880

Waiters earned an average of just $20,808 last year, among the lowest in the country, but the job has its perks. Many restaurants offer their servers free meals. Also, servers often receive gratuities in cash. The job, in many cases, offers flexible hours, which is beneficial to students and individuals seeking extra income from part-time work. Roughly half of all waiters and waitresses worked part-time as of 2012, according to the BLS. The number of waiters and waitresses is expected to grow by nearly 6% between 2012 and 2022.

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5. Registered nurses
> Total number of jobs: 2.7 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 19.4%
> Average annual income: $68,910

Nursing is already one of the nation’s most popular professions. And the BLS projects the number of registered nurses will continue to climb -- by 19% between 2012 and 2022 -- due to an aging population and improved access to health care services. There are several paths to becoming a registered nurse, including associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs, as well as nursing diploma programs. In addition to educational and licensing requirements, the work schedule of many nurses is demanding. However, nurses tend to be well paid, with an average annual wage of nearly $69,000 last year, well above the national average for all occupations.

4. Office clerks
> Total number of jobs: 2.8 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 6.2%
> Average annual income: $29,990

The responsibilities of office clerks vary from company to company, but they usually help make an office run smoothly. This involves sorting mail, editing and distributing memos, and copying, filing and organizing paper and electronic documents. The average office clerk earned $29,990 last year, making it among the lower paying occupations in the U.S. The skill set for the job typically does not require a college education. Pay was not especially high, even for top earners. Only 10% of clerks earned at least $45,350 per year. The number of clerks in the U.S. is expected to grow much more slowly than most occupations -- by 6.2% between 2012 and 2022.

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3. Food preparation and serving workers
> Total number of jobs: 3.0 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 14.2%
> Average annual income: $18,880

Food preparation and service workers are primarily employed in fast-food restaurants. The job usually does not require a high school diploma or long-term training. However, the physical demands of the job can be strenuous, and the environment, including hot ovens and wet floors, can be hazardous at times. The pay of many workers in food preparation and serving is very low. Workers earned an average of $9.08 per hour -- less than half the U.S. average for all workers. In fact, many large employers in the industry have been criticized for their low pay. Half of all such workers were only employed part time as of 2012. A lack of full-time work is often cited as reason for why fast-food businesses fail to pay employees a living wage.

2. Cashiers
> Total number of jobs: 3.3 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 2.6%
> Average annual income: $20,420

Cashiers earned $20,420 on average as of 2013, one of the lowest salaries in the country. The number of cashiers in the U.S. is expected to grow by just 2.6% by 2022, well below the U.S. overall job growth expectation of 11% by that year, as self-service checkouts and online sales become more commonplace. According to BLS, roughly one-quarter of cashiers in the country worked in supermarkets, while 17% worked in gas stations.

1. Retail Salespersons
> Total number of jobs: 4.5 million
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 9.8%
> Average annual income: $25,370

No profession had more workers than retail sales, with nearly 4.5 million employed as of May 2013. Retail salespersons can work selling a range of products, from apparel to electronics to cars. Retail salespeople are not necessarily paid well, earning an average hourly salary of $12.20 as of last year, or more than $10 per hour less than the average for all jobs. Roughly one-third of all retail salespersons worked part time in 2012, although some may want to work more. Many of the biggest retailers restrict hours to prevent workers from becoming full-time employees in order to limit their costs. Despite the growth in e-commerce, jobs for retail workers are expected to rise 10% between 2012 and 2022, according to the BLS.

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The Least Common Jobs

10. Geographers
> Total number of jobs: 1,480
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 29.0%
> Average annual income: $75,070

Geographers study land and its features, including lakes, mountains and volcanoes. They also study natural phenomena such as tsunamis and earthquakes, as well as the natural history of land. Nearly half of all geographers in the U.S. were employed by the federal government in 2012, and on average, earned fairly lucrative salaries. The average annual salary for geographers was over $75,000, while the top 10% of Geographers earned at least $105,070. According to the BLS, geographers need at least a master’s degree in geography, although some entry level positions in geography require just a bachelor’s degree. The number of geographers is expected to increase by 29% by 2022, among the highest growth percentages among all professions.

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9. Timing device assemblers and adjusters
> Total number of jobs: 1,460
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: -2.6%
> Average annual income: $31,410

Timing device assemblers and adjusters construct precision timepieces such as clocks and watches. The number of jobs in this occupation is expected to shrink by 2.6% between 2012 and 2022. The number of total jobs in the U.S., by comparison, is expected to grow 10.8% during that time. The average salary for someone working in this job was $31,410, lower than the majority of all other occupations in the country.

8. Animal breeders
> Total number of jobs: 1,240
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: -23.4%
> Average annual income: $40,310

Animal breeders can focus on breeding either household pets or livestock, such as pigs, chicken and sheep. Breeders keep track of animals’ genealogies and traits, and they use this knowledge to produce desired traits in their offspring. Animal breeders usually have prior relevant experience working with animals, and they must learn to utilize breeding equipment for some animals. The average animal breeder took home more than $40,000, somewhat lower than the average for all occupations, although pay can range widely. Some breeders made less than $18,000 per year, while top-paid breeders made more than $60,000 as of last year.

7. Wood model makers
> Total number of jobs: 1,240
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 5.5%
> Average annual income: $33,910

Wood model makers create wooden replicas of products. On top of woodworking skills, they should be able to read blueprints. A high level of formal education is not necessarily required, but vocational training and on-the-job experience are frequently important for model makers. The craft is not especially high paying, with an average salary of just $33,910. The profession is also projected to grow just 5.5% from 2012 through 2022, about half of the expected growth rate for all occupations.

6. Radio operators
> Total number of jobs: 1,160
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 1.2%
> Average annual income: $45,210

Radio operators maintain equipment and send radio communications. They often must monitor emergency frequencies, and in some cases, communicate with ships, aircraft and mining crews. The projected growth rate of radio operator jobs by 2022 is 1.2%, one of the lower growth rates in the country. While the average salary of a radio operator was similar to the average salary for all U.S. occupations, many radio operators were actually relatively well-paid. The median annual salary as of 2013 for radio operators was $44,620, which was above the median annual salary for all occupations in the U.S. of $35,080.

5. Segmental pavers
> Total number of jobs: 1,110
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 38.1%
> Average annual income: $35,290

Segmental pavers ensure the streets and sidewalks are smoothly paved. Typically, pavers pour, lay out and shape concrete in segments, as well as install bedding and restraining materials, to build surface infrastructure such as sidewalks, runways, and roads. The job does not require a higher education, but it is labor intensive. The average annual salary was $35,290 -- among the lower half of salaries in the U.S. for all occupations. According to the BLS, The number of segmental pavers will increase by 38.1% between 2012 and 2022, among the highest growth rates of all occupations.

4. Mathematical technicians
> Total number of jobs: 1,080
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 12.6%
> Average annual income: $60,260

Mathematical technicians apply mathematical principles to technological and engineering problems. With just roughly 1,080 people working in the field as of 2013, and a projected growth rate of 12.6% between 2012 and 2022 -- about on par with the expected growth rate for all jobs in the U.S. -- openings remain fairly rare. Technicians usually require a bachelor’s degree in a field such as applied mathematics. The ability to transform raw data into meaningful information often requires knowledge of various software programs as well. In addition to technicians, “other workers in mathematical science occupations,” was also among the least common jobs, with 1,240 people employed in the area last year.

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3. Industrial-organizational psychologists
> Total number of jobs: 1,040
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 53.4%
> Average annual income: $87,960

Industrial-organizational psychologists deal with issues of worker morale and productivity. Industrial-organizational psychologists usually require, at a minimum, a master’s degree in psychology. Although the field is small, with total employment of slightly more than 1,000 people, it is a growing field. Between 2012 and 2022, the BLS projects the number of such psychologists will grow by 53.4%, driven by employers’ desires to retain employees and keep them productive. The job also pays well, with an average wage of nearly $88,000, although compensation ranges widely. At least 10% of industrial-organizational psychologists earned less than $50,000 last year, while the top-paid 10% earned at least $140,390.

2. Wood patternmakers
> Total number of jobs: 870
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: 0.2%
> Average annual income: $39,940

Wood patternmakers generally plan and construct wooden units or sectional patterns in various types of furniture. Jobs in this field are predominantly located in the rust belt region of the U.S., according to BLS data, while others are located in the furniture capital of America, North Carolina. Last year the average salary of a wood patternmaker was $39,940, lower than the $46,440 average salary in the U.S. that year. The top quartile of wood patternmakers made a median annual salary of $48,530. The job generally requires vocational training, on-the-job experience, or an associate’s degree. The number of jobs in the field are expected to grow by about 0.2% between 2012 and 2022, one of the slower rates in the country.

1. Fabric menders
> Total number of jobs: 800
> Pct. change 2012 to 2022: -10.4%
> Average annual income: $27,910

Fabric menders repair defects in fabrics -- ranging from linens to parachutes. As part of their work, menders patch tears, clean stains, and install grommets as needed, among other tasks. As of last year, there were only 800 fabric menders. And the BLS projects that the number of menders will decline even further in the next decade. Fabric menders are generally not especially well paid. Less than 10% of all menders were paid more than $40,000 per year as of 2013, well below the national average wage of $46,440.

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