So I spoke to a lumberjack the other day.
How cool is that? And yet somehow, someone thinks I have the worst job in America.
That someone is CareerCast, an Internet site that ranks jobs every year from best to worst, 1 to 200. Newspaper reporter ranked dead last at 200 this year, which pushed last year's worst job, lumberjack, up to 199.
"Ever-shrinking newsrooms, dwindling budgets and competition from Internet businesses have created very difficult conditions for newspaper reporters," said CareerCast, which happens to be an Internet business that, um, competes with newspapers for advertising.
I'm seeing maybe a dead-tree bias here — although just about every newspaper reporter these days is published online in addition to print. And being a lumberjack, Brian Blickenstaff tells me, involves more than chopping down trees to make, among other things, paper.
Blickenstaff is an actual lumberjack, although that old-timey term has pretty much given way to the more current "logger." And he's not just any logger, but the Maryland/Delaware 2012 Logger of the Year, an honor bestowed by the University of Maryland Extension's master logger program, which considers safety, forest management and timber-harvesting practices.
Blickenstaff, who is based in Myersville in Frederick County, seemed neither surprised nor concerned that his profession ranked so low. He thinks it's because of the perceived dangers of the job, which he can't entirely deny.
"I've got a titanium rod in my leg," Blickenstaff, 44, said. "I broke it six, seven years ago when I was cutting the limbs off a tree and one 10-inch limb swung back at me."
Most of what he doesn't like about the job is beyond his control — you're at the mercy of the weather, and there seems to be a lot more permitting and paperwork to deal with these days. But the job itself? Can't complain, Blickenstaff said.
"I'm self-employed. I like what I do," he said. "I meet a lot of nice people, and I'm outdoors."
I took a look at CareerCast's methodology, and I could see why lumberjacks scraped bottom — things like physical demands and degree of hazards encountered figured into the rankings. That must be why you'll find oil rig workers (#196) and enlisted military (#198) down there as well.
But reporters? Except for those in war zones, we're the ones with the pens rather than swords, watching from the sidelines rather than in the thick of things.
CareerCast weighs things like wages, future prospects, workplace environment and stress levels in its calculations — and particularly downgrades reporters in that last category. It takes 11 factors into account to determine stress levels and at least five of them actually are things I like rather than loathe about my job: amount of travel, deadlines, competitiveness, working in the public eye and meeting the public.
Apparently, hell indeed is other people — CareerCast also considers "degree of public contact" a negative in assessing the workplace environment. That could be why the top three best, actuary, biomedical engineer and software engineer, don't necessarily involve dealing with — eek — the public.
Lists basically exist to start arguments, which of course makes them irresistible. It's an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, or reduce a whole, wide-ranging category to a single number.
Whether you're Brad Pitt or the guy who is waiting tables until you get the big break, for example, you both have the 197th-worst job — actor. I'm betting, though, that neither spends much time wondering how to make the career transition to actuary.
Maybe the real takeaway from all this, the way to make sure you the best job, or at least a not-bad one, is pretty simple: Read the job description.
I remember once asking a social worker I knew how she liked the work, which commands a fairly high ranking of 49 on the CareerCast list.
"It's fine," she told me, "except people keep coming into my office and telling me their problems."
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