I got a call last week from a magazine editor who invited me to weigh in on their annual list of “The Top 100 Jobs.” I politely declined. He asked me why, and I said, “Because I don’t think you’ll print my answer.”
I get it — people love lists. They’re fun, and if someone invited me to discuss The Top 100 Films, The Top 100 Books, or The Top 100 Songs, I’m in. But ranking movies and songs is harmless. Ranking careers and colleges is not. I know for a fact that a great education can be found at many affordable schools that will never appear on someone else’s list. Likewise, I’m personally convinced that career contentment has nothing to do with someone else’s perception of a “good job.”
A couple years ago, I was dropped into a 60-foot prospect shaft about the size of a manhole, somewhere in the Australian outback. I was profiling a jolly pair of opal miners, and getting a taste of what their work was like day in and day out. As they lowered me further and further into the narrow tube, my focus shifted from looking for opals to not losing my mind. The claustrophobia was palpable, and by the time I got to the bottom, the sky above me was just a blue dot. I yelled up to the men far above me, “Do you guys really love this?” They yelled back in unison, their voices faint but clear, “Best job I ever had!”
Building a successful career
I’ve asked the same question to hundreds of people over the years — roughnecks, crab fishermen, welders, roustabouts, plumbers, lumberjacks, truck drivers, soldiers, blacksmiths, electricians — and they all answered the same way. And yet, none of those vocations appear on anyone’s list of “Top Jobs.” How come?
Right now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 3 million jobs are available for those who are willing to learn a skill that’s in demand. The vast majority of these jobs do not require a four-year degree; they require training. Fortunately, many excellent training facilities exist all over the country. And yet, none of those schools are ever included in the “Top 100 Colleges in America.” Why?
The perks of skill-based education
Last year, my foundation sent dozens of people to trade schools that most parents have never heard of, to pursue skills that few guidance counselors affirmatively encourage. Many of these jobs lead to six-figure salaries quickly. I’ve partnered with several companies that assist potential employees with vocational training. Caterpillar has a program that will train you for free to be a dealer technician. Categorically, I can tell you that these people love their work. Many have gone on to start their own businesses.
It’s impossible to know who or what will influence our capacity to learn, or challenge our intellect in a meaningful way. The most influential teacher I ever had taught music in a public school. The best professor I ever had taught English at a community college. Had I only considered the “best” schools, or limited myself to only exploring the “top jobs,” I wouldn’t have the career I do today. And that would be a shame, because I love what I do.
This is the third time I’ve been invited to write for this supplement, and I’ve agreed to participate for the same reason I did the first two times. Too many great opportunities are falling through the cracks, and too many people are being influenced by someone else’s notion of a “good job.” Job satisfaction is important, but from what I’ve seen, it has less to do with what you do, and more to do with who you are. And character, I’m afraid, isn’t something you’re going to find on any list.