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The Best and Worst Jobs for 2012

Cindy Perman

The job market has begun a decidedly ungraceful recovery: Jobs have been added to the economy for 18 straight months and several gauges are back at pre-recession levels, including jobless claims and wage growth. But the job growth isn’t always as robust as many hope for and projections suggest it will likely take until at least 2014 to regain the millions of jobs lost during the recession.

If it’s one thing the recession has taught us it’s that not all job prospects are created equal. Job search portal CareerCast is out with their Best and Worst Jobs for 2012 and the jobs that have the best prospects — and those that have the worst — are a direct reflection of what’s going on in the economy.

[Related: Careers That Could Pay Six Figures]

“The jobs that continue to fare very well are those that fare the best in a tough economy – primarily information technology and health care,” said Tony Lee, publisher of CareerCast’s 2012 Jobs Rated Report.

Interestingly, all the reports of shortages of skilled workers in these two fields hasn’t spurred more people to pursue them – in fact, it’s the opposite.

“The shortages are getting more acute!” Lee said.

For that reason, there’s also been an increase in demand for human resources – you need good HR people to find those skilled workers! HR Manager is new to the list this year, as is online advertising manager, reflecting the changing demands in the economy. And you need to offer incentives for those skilled employees to stay: Of the eight jobs that returned to the list again this year, all showed a pay increase compared to 2011.

So what makes a job one of the “best” jobs?

“The top-rated jobs have few physical demands, minimal stress, a good working environment and a strong hiring outlook,” Lee said.

But with the good comes the bad, hence the Worst Jobs for 2012. So what makes a job one of the worst?

High stress, high physical demands, and a tough or dangerous work environment, according to CareerCast. Several of the worst jobs in America involve working “in physically demanding, precarious, low-paying professions with a weak hiring outlook,” said Lee. While many college graduates remain unemployed, causing many to question the value of a college degree, the value is reflected in the lists: Nearly all of the “best” jobs require a college degree and many of the “worst” don’t even require a high-school diploma.

[Related: Survival Skills for a Job You Detest]

The food-service industry always ranks pretty low, given the tough working conditions and low pay, but the industry was even harder hit by the recession, when many people cut back on going out to eat.

The one new job that made the worst list this year was Enlisted Military Personnel for obvious reasons — a high-stress job in often dangerous conditions.

Here's the list of the top 5 Best Jobs for 2012.

1. Software Engineer
2012 pay: $88,142
2011 pay: $87,140
Change in pay: +1.1%

Software engineer has been the No. 1 job for two years running. You can sum that up in two words, Lee said: “Technology revolution.”

Software engineers are the “creative minds behind computer programs,” according to the BLS.

“Every day new demand for new software is not being fulfilled,” Lee said. “Someone right now is in a garage somewhere dreaming up the next big thing and they’re going to need to find 100 programmers to make it happen.”

2. Actuary
2012 pay: $88,202
2011 pay: $87,204
Change in pay: +1.1%

Actuaries analyze the financial costs of risk and uncertainty, using mathematics, statistics and financial theory to assess the risk that a particular event will occur, according to the BLS.

There is always demand for risk analysts across all industries – actuary has made the top 10 for four years running -- but the uncertainty that came with the financial crisis, and economic havoc it wreaked on companies, juiced demand for this profession even more.

Add to that the fact that most people who have an accounting background tend to pursue work as accountants because the pay is better and you’ve got strong demand. Employment growth in this profession is expected to jump 27 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the BLS.

“The spotlight has risen on this profession,” Lee said. “More actuaries are needed. Demand far outstrips supply.”

3. Human Resources Manager
2012 pay: $99,102
New to the list for 2012

At first glance, HR manager being the No. 3 job was the biggest surprise of the best list, but when you think about employment trends, it makes sense: There are some high-skilled jobs in high-demand fields like health care and information technology that are in demand and there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill them, Lee said.

Add to that the fact that a lot of skilled HR managers are retiring and fewer young people pursue human resources as a career and you’ve got a perfect storm for one of the best jobs in America this year.

And, because it requires a qualified HR person to be able to spot and hire these skilled workers, HR managers get paid, on average, just shy of six figures.

4. Dental Hygienist
2012 pay: $68,109
2011 pay: $67,107
Change in pay: +1.5%

Dental hygienists clean teeth and examine patients for oral diseases such as gingivitis. They are increasingly doing more of the dentist’s work. To be a dental hygienist typically requires an associate’s degree in dental hygiene.

Perhaps a reflection of our declining dental hygiene as a society or the fact that fewer people are pursuing work as a dental hygienist – or both – employment in this field is expected to grow by 38 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the BLS.

“It’s a lot like computer programmers – there’s demand and not enough supply,” Lee said.

5. Financial Planner
2012 pay: $104,161
2011 pay: $101,164
Change in pay: +3%

As Baby Boomers get older, they not only need health care – they need financial advice for retirement. And with the stock-market gyrations that resulted from the financial crisis, that demand is even greater.

“People are realizing that they haven’t made the investments they need to make,” Lee said. “Even the savviest investors got hosed. It was a bit of a warning call that they need someone to help them with their investments.”

Not only is there demand for financial planners, but there are fewer people going into this profession than the demand is requiring, Lee said.

Click here to see the full list of America’s Best Jobs.

Here's the list of the top 5 Worst Jobs for 2012.

1. Lumberjack
2012 pay: $32,144
2011 pay: $32,109
Change in pay: flat

Lumberjack has always been one of the worst jobs — like dairy farmers, you’re working outside whatever the weather, in dangerous conditions, with low pay in an industry that took a huge hit during the recession (hello housing bust) and is increasingly being automated.

That being said, you’ll find a lot of lumberjacks who say they do it for their love of the outdoors and that they take great pride in their work.

“I talked to one lumberjack who said, ‘I love my job! I’m outdoors,’” Lee explained. “I said, ‘But isn’t it dangerous?’ He replied: ‘Oh sure, I’ve broken my leg twice, my collar bone and lost my pinky finger. But it’s no big deal. Just part of the job,’” Lee said.

“How many of us would give up our pinky finger for our job?” Lee quipped.

2. Dairy Farmer
2012 pay: $33,119
2011 pay: $32,114
Change in pay: flat

Dairy farmers weren’t in the 10 worst last year so they not only shot into the bottom 10 but they debuted at No. 2.

First, it’s a low-paying job. Second, it’s very dangerous working with large animals such as cows. “Moving the animals, [farmers] could get their feet crushed,” Lee explained. “And there are more fatalities in dairy farming than ever before.”

Plus, the working conditions are tough — not only the obvious manure issue (though talk to a dairy farmer and he’ll tell you he doesn’t even smell it anymore) but also the fact that you have to get out there whether it’s 10 degrees or 100 degrees.

And the job outlook is tough: Dairy farming is increasingly becoming a corporate business, which is squeezing the little guys, Lee said.

3. Enlisted Military Personnel
2012 pay: $36,261
New to the list for 2012

Enlisted military personnel is new to the list but not because it suddenly became a tough job. It was hard to get solid data on the profession, according to CareerCast.

“It’s incredibly dangerous. You’re on the front lines and you’re responsible for others. The stress level is extremely high,” Lee said.

Plus, the hiring outlook is now weaker than it was at the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

4. Oil Rig Worker
2012 pay: $32,132
2011 pay: $32,143
Change in pay: flat

You might be surprised to find any job in the booming oil industry on a “worst” list but these guys are the entry-level spot on the oil totem pole. Their jobs are dangerous: working on oil rigs, often far away from home or offshore, in bad weather and dangerous working conditions. And they don’t share in the wealth of the industry because they are typically paid very low.

“It’s clearly the most dangerous job in the industry,” Lee said. “The fatality rate is very high.”

One bright spot is this category climbed up three notches on the list, after being the absolute worst job in America for two years running.

“With the surge in the energy industry, the hiring outlook improved enough to nudge them higher,” Lee explained.

“It’s dangerous and doesn’t pay well but many people thought, ‘Well, at least it’s a career where I can retire young,’” Lee said. “Now, you can’t even guarantee that you’ll maintain your job, nevermind retire from it,” Lee said.
5. Newspaper Reporter
2012 pay: $35,275
2011 pay: $34,275
Change in pay: +3%

Newspaper reporter has always been a high-stress, low-pay job, but add to that the explosion of online and mobile news and newspaper reporters make a hard landing on the “worst” list.

“The newspaper industry is going through a full retrenchment. There are mergers, bankruptcies and layoffs everywhere,” Lee said. “Point to a newspaper that hasn’t had layoffs – not in this country!” he said.

With the move to digital, the pressures have mounted on newspaper reporters. “They are now required to tweet and do video as well as write articles,” Lee said. “They’re asked to do much more for less — and the pay is not good.” 

Click here to see the full list of America’s Worst Jobs.

Note: Pay levels are “midlevel income”

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