Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The nonsensical math behind "best jobs" rankings

Paul Bunyan was a happy guy...despite having the worst job in America. Flickr / daveynin

While wasting time on Facebook this week, you may have come across data announcing that cashiers have better jobs than architects. Or that hairstylists have better jobs than anthropologists. Or that typists beat out surgeons.

That's because job search site CareerCast released its latest ranking of 200 jobs, from best (mathematician) to worst (lumberjack). This is just one of a handful of rankings that purport to order a wide range of jobs, requiring a wide range of talents, from worst to first. US News & World Report, for example, has its Best Jobs list it releases every year. CNN likewise ranks best jobs. The lists always get a good amount of attention — you can find out if your job is superior, because it's scientific! — but there are some glaring weaknesses to these systems.

1. They're rankings

The problem with ordinal rankings — and the more variables, the more problems here — is that it implies meaningful differences between one job and the next one that is one ranking below it. You can definitively say that one job pays more than another, but is it true that clinical social worker is better than nail technician is better than middle school teacher, as US News' rankings imply? And even if somehow that were empirically provable, what's the practical application of this knowledge? Should the middle school teacher go be a social worker? Or just take it as a given that the man who does her nails has a better job?

2. Math implies things are measurable

Data-intensive rankings imply that there is some sort of a measurable tradeoff between variables, however those variables are put together. According to CareerCast, physicists make $106,000 a year and come in at No. 22. Medical records technicians, at No. 23, make around $34,000. In other words, these two jobs are nearly equal in their "bestness," despite their vast differences. What that seems to imply is that the extra $72,000 a physicist makes per year makes up for that job's worse job outlook, higher stress, and worse work environment in such a way that it's almost exactly as "good" as the medical records technician job. Which means rankings set themselves up for the impossible task of applying value to things that are priceless. Can you really put a price — or quantify a stress trade-off — on a good job outlook?

3) "Mathematician-ness"

With apologies to Malcolm Gladwell, this is a way of saying that best job rankings reward a job that fits a particular idea of what "best" is. Gladwell has leveled this criticism at the US News college rankings, saying that they reward "Yale-ness." And just as those colleges reward selectiveness (thereby advantaging Yale and schools like it), these rankings reward particular things. Careercast, for example, gives physical and environmental demands equal weight with stress, and together gives those factors equal weight with income. CNN is more minimalist, rewarding job growth, pay, and career field size, and also cuts out lower-paying and lower-growth jobs.

So CareerCast's unique weighting put mathematicians at the front of the pack. CNN picked biomedical engineer. That could easily say that these are good jobs to have, but it really tells you about the traits these two organizations think make a job "best."

4. How do you get there?

On average, a college degree means more pay than a high school diploma, and a professional degree, master's or Ph.D. can up the pay even more, so it's easy to argue that more schooling is worth it. That said, that's seven years of your life, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you want to be a lawyer. Neither the US News rankings, CNN's, nor CareerCast's, incorporate academic qualifications into their methodologies.

5. What really matters

It's not that these rankings are completely thoughtless. CareerCast, for example, has a reasonable explanation of how they came to their methodology: "If we can work at a job that has a high income and a good lookout, we will accept lots of things that go with these jobs, e.g. Stress, Physical Demands and the Environment, be it good or bad, in our opinion."

So there's some sort of a loose formula at work, and it does make a certain kind of sense: super-high-stress + big physical demands + job insecurity + really low pay + bad environment = a miserable job. But that's a long way to get to the answer of what makes someone satisfied with their job. If you want to know how satisfied workers are, you could just ask them.

Indeed, some places have. The UK government has undertaken a study to show which jobs correlate most highly with life satisfaction. The University of Chicago's General Social Survey has also been used to tally up which jobs have the highest career satisfaction. The surveys even come from outside academia. Business Insider and jobs database CareerBliss analyzed workers' reviews of their jobs to find "happiest jobs" as well. Yes, these sorts of things are subjective, but that's sort of the point, because every group of people in any given occupation is a self-selecting crowd. Firefighters or lumberjacks (No. 192 and 200, respectively, on CareerCast's list) likely have a higher tolerance for putting their bodies in harm's way than mathematicians. In the equation of what makes a good job, "physical demands" may simply be a much lower-weighted variable for that type of person.

So "worst job" doesn't at all mean "undesirable job" or "torturous job." If so, all those kids at journalism school (newspaper reporters are No. 199 on CareerCast's list) have no idea what they're getting into. Or they're insane.

Jobs rankings do get one thing right: there is much more to a good job than a high salary. That's why we're not all striving to be surgeons. But when you mash too much of that jobs data together, a lot can get lost in the shuffle.

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