We All Do the Same Work and Hate It

(Or, The Secret of The Rare 620)

by Kiley Dorton

Did you know there are about 820 different occupations you could hold in the US? Off the top of your head, how many could you list? I can only name about 30, and I’ve been working in the workforce space for the past 5 years.

Yet we expect everyone — you, me, your cousin, that high school junior, that college graduate, that returning veteran — to be able to just “figure out” what they should do for work. Follow your passion, right? Well according to Gallup, most people are not “enthusiastic about and committed to their work.” On the contrary, 2 out of 3 workers are disengaged. That feels like something in the “figure it out” and “follow your passion” advice is simply broken. What’s not working when it comes to picking a career, an occupation, or our next job? Why are most of us completely disengaged at work?

I decided to take a different approach to investigate this question. I looked at the data.

(and by the data I mean the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics from May 2014, available here)

Most people do a handful of things

It turns out, over half of the population (50.7%) is employed in just 50 occupations. That’s right, over 68.5 million working Americans hold only 50 different occupations, out of a possible 820 occupations.

Among other diversity issues, our workforce suffers from a rarely acknowledged homogeneity: most Americans will be funneled into one of fifty common occupations. Which raises the uncomfortable question: how much time, money, and effort did we expend to equip those 68.5 million people with a broad set of knowledge and skills, most of which are not used in their actual jobs? Put another way, how many of those millions of people hated Math or History or Geography, got poor grades in those subjects, became discouraged because of their low GPA, didn’t pursue additional education, and wound up working a retail job?

Furthermore, many of these top fifty occupations are common, well-defined, and require skills that can be trained on-the-job. Did those millions of people waste a significant portion of their productive, working years acquiring a wide-ranging education, only to go through a more focused, somewhat redundant training after they got hired?

And to the point: would we be more engaged and satisfied if we felt like our job was unique and special? Would we have a higher self-worth if we were one of a select few who can do the work of an uncommon occupation? Might we be a little more excited by the day to day work, seeing as it’s not exactly the same as what millions of other people are doing every day? Would our conversations and collective intellectual stimulation bloom if more of us brought a unique perspective to the table, born from a more diverse, uncommon set of experiences at work?

Simply put: what are we missing by funneling most people into common, disengaging jobs?

The Top 50

First, despite the fact that those fifty occupations are only 6% of the available occupations out there, over half of us find ourselves working in them. So let’s break them down a little further.

Here they are:

The Top 50 Occupations by Total Employment, Data Source: BLS 2014

Now, let’s summarize the annual wages of those top fifty:

  • 4 pay below $20,000 (employing 9.8M people)
  • 20 pay between $20,001 and $30,000 (28.2M people)
  • 10 pay between $30,001 and $50,000 (13.2M people)
  • 12 pay between $50,001 and $70,000 (13.3M people)
  • 1 pays between $70,001 and $90,000 (0.6M people)
  • 3 pay more than $90,000 (3.3M people)

As a side note, according to MIT the living wage for a family of two working adults with two children ranges from $48,000 to $56,000 per year. 38 of the top 200 occupations pay less than half of that. Yet 31.7 million Americans are employed in those low-paying occupations. Perhaps that can provide a little context to the recent stories of companies and states implementing higher minimum wage policies.

The Top 200

Didn’t see your occupation on the list of the top fifty? More than likely you work in one of the top 200, which account for about 82% of employment. So the good old 80/20 rule generally applies: 82% of the working population works in 24% of the available occupations.

Or said another way, 110.6 million people work in just 200 different occupations, and the remaining 24.4 million people spread pretty thin to fill out the other 620 occupations — also known as The Rare 620.

Let’s see how those common 200 occupations look when plotted on a chart that shows annual wages compared with total employment:

Top 200 Occupations’ Median Annual Wages by Total Employment, Data source: BLS 2014

Notice anything interesting about the data? The trend you see is a negative exponential relationship between wages and employment. It makes intuitive sense: we simply have a lot more low-paying jobs than high-paying jobs. Our workforce has evolved to follow the structure of the organizational pyramid — except it’s not linear, it’s exponential (I guess that might look more like a really weird Eiffel Tower?). A small number of people are employed in occupations that pay 10x what the occupations with massive numbers of employment pay. This might be a demonstration of capitalism manifested in occupational compensation, in a way, because in a communist economy the chart would simply be a flat line. Or perhaps it is evidence of the gap between the small portion of Americans who are born into a situation that prepares them for the high-paying occupations and the giant portion of Americans who are born into the exact opposite. But is this negative relationship morallyjustified? That’s another post for another time. ☺

But the negative exponential relationship also means one other interesting thing: as you seek out occupations with less employment, you increase your chances of making more money — exponentially. Now the fun begins.

The Rare 620

The issue I am interested in today is the fact that there are dozens — if not hundreds — of occupations that are rarely discovered but are viable alternatives for millions of Americans. They pay well (at or above the living wage), are growing at a rate of at least 2% and have job openings available today. Sure, they might require a 6-month training program or some significant on-the-job training. But if the end result is an engaged worker with a unique job that makes them feel special and provides the job security of a smaller pool of job seekers, isn’t that worth it?

I have a theory that most of us are disengaged at work because we work in common — often crappy —  jobs. We feel completely unremarkable, entirely replaceable, and like the work we do is just plain boring. But if we had known there were other occupations out there that were different, we might have changed course years ago. We might be working on something worth talking about, with the added bonus of being much more difficult to replace. We might just flip the script and find ourselves engaged and growing at work. I think of it like the industrial revolution, but for engagement at work. Machines boosted worker productivity by enabling workers to accomplish ten times more than they could before. But now we have all the machines and computers we could ask for. This revolution is how we become ten times more motivated to do the work, and ten times more satisfied in the process.

I wonder if there are a few diamonds in the rough: occupations that have a low barrier to entry, a relatively high annual wage, open jobs, growth, and exist as a part of The Rare 620 occupations. They might have weird job titles, and they won’t be the jobs that show up first in the job search engines, but they are there. It’s up to us to help people find them.

The question is, how do we guide job seekers into the lesser-known occupations? Before we do that, how and when do we streamline the education and preparatory process to cut out any wasted training that the individual doesn’t enjoy and that will not be utilized in his or her career? And at the same time double-down on the knowledge and skills they will use every single day?

Food for thought. Until we figure it out, I’ll keep working as a hybrid Web Developer (#224 on the list, with 121,000 others) meets Graphic Designer (#154 on the list, with 197,000 others) meets Marketing Manager (#165 on the list, with 184,000 others). I guess — on average — that puts me somewhere around occupation #181 out of the top 200… What’s on the other side of 200 in the wild, unexplored territory of The Rare 620? I say it’s time to find out.

This post raises more questions than it answers, as is often the case when you start to try to solve any problem. If you liked it, let us know and we'll dive deeper into the data and the issues, and take another step into The Rare 620. Thanks for reading!

Kiley Dorton

Director of Product Design & Development for TORQworks