The Best and Worst Jobs Exploring Job Requirement Data by Occupation

By Jeff Gillis & Mike Simpson

When considering career paths, one’s brain likely jumps straight to salaries and job requirements, with hopes of optimizing one and minimizing the other. The median annual income in the U.S. for 2020 was just over $51K. So, if a job offers more than that, it probably sounds like a good deal. However, salary is only part of the equation, remember? That annual salary may become less appealing as the job requirements, working conditions, and daily stress become more difficult. We analyzed the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) 2020 Occupational Requirements Survey to get a better picture of how different occupations’ salaries stand up to their job requirements. Keep reading to learn more about how not all jobs are created equal, and decide for yourself which positions are worth the pay. 

How Hard Could It Be?

Of jobs with the most difficult requirements, being a firefighter was the most difficult occupation, according to the BLS. Around 70% of all firefighter jobs have physically difficult, if not dangerous, job requirements and a median salary of just $53K. Interestingly, the second most difficult job – first-line supervisors of firefighting and prevention workers – is in the same field as the most difficult job but has a median salary that’s $26K more per year than the standard firefighter. 

Occupations With Difficult Job Conditions. The jobs with the most difficult requirements.

A jump in pay was seen across the various difficult jobs we explored, with those in supervisor or manager roles making significantly more than those they supervise. For example, first-line supervisors of police, firefighting, and construction workers all earn at least $26K more than their subordinates. Those in first-line supervisor roles likely worked their way up within their industry, which corresponds with our expectation that there is probably a positive relationship between required training/job experience and pay in difficult jobs – essentially, the longer you’re in an industry, the more you can expect to make. This advancement structure in difficult jobs is further supported by the fact that none of the jobs listed necessarily requires a 4-year degree; many instead require apprenticeships, on-the-job training, or trade certificates. That being said, only one of the top 10 most difficult jobs paid over $100K, so the salary ceiling is relatively low for these jobs compared to others we’ll discuss.

All Easy Jobs Aren’t Created Equal

As one might expect, our top 10 occupations with the easiest job requirements tended toward desk jobs. Switchboard operators met the largest percentage of easy job qualifications, but their wages were significantly lower than the national median wage, and positions in this field are on the decline, so this might not be the best option if you’re looking to make a lifelong career of it. Otherwise, all but two of the top 10 jobs with easy requirements make more than the national median wage of $51K.

Occupations With the Easiest Job Requirements. These jobs have the easiest conditions.

The top 10 highest-paid jobs in this category all cleared $100K. However, none of the 10 lowest paid jobs with easy requirements – all in the service and hospitality industry – earned more than $26K. Compared to the difficult jobs, there is a much larger pay gap between the highest- and lowest-paid workers of easy jobs, with chief executives making $163K more per year than their wait staff counterparts (the difference between the highest and lowest earners in difficult jobs is just $75K). Furthermore, as far as jobs that don’t require education, the difficult jobs pay better than the easy jobs and offer advancement paths. But if you’re new to the workforce and just looking for a short term gig without too many barriers to entry, these positions can offer a great starting point.

Is It Worth the Stress?

Of all the stressful jobs we examined, sewing machine operators met the most high-stress requirements, with 67% of these jobs being micromanaged by supervisors, while being among the worst paid with a median salary of only $28K. Nearly half of the remaining top 10 most stressful jobs are in food service and hospitality. Meaning that while these jobs (specifically waiters, bartenders, and restaurant hosts) don’t have difficult physical requirements or working conditions as we established earlier, they do tend to be really stressful, so don’t let the “easy job” tag fool you!

Interestingly, police and sheriff patrol officers were in the top 10 list for both most stressful and most difficult jobs, which could explain why police agencies have been struggling to entice new recruits over the last several years.

Micromanaged Occupations. The positions that have the most oversight and interaction with others.

For many people, the salaries for the most micromanaged jobs might not be worth the associated stress of having a supervisor constantly breathing down their neck. However, if you’re the rare type who thrives in stressful environments, then you might as well get paid well for it – so consider working as a sales manager, industrial production manager, or a general or operations manager, all of which earn over $100K per year.

Workplace Freedom and What Comes With It

Next, our research focused on the flip side of micromanagement – autonomy. We identified autonomous jobs that checked at least half of these boxes: self-paced workload; no requirement to work around crowds; supervisors aren’t present; supervisory duties aren’t mandatory; speaking and interacting with the general public isn’t a must; and no requirement to hear over a telephone (think call centers). These jobs are well suited for self-starters who can keep themselves motivated without being told what to do, as well as folks who consider themselves more introverted. If that sounds like you, then keep reading.

Jobs With the Most Autonomy. These jobs have the least oversight and most freedom and flexibility.

Postsecondary political science teachers have the most job autonomy, with around 91% of all jobs having few micro-managed aspects of day-to-day work and fairly relaxed working conditions. In fact, some of the most autonomous and least physically demanding jobs are in post-secondary education (sociology and political science teachers), but before you set your eyes on an occupation in that field, remember that you’ll likely need a graduate degree in addition to your bachelor’s degree. If cooking is your passion, opt for the restaurant scene where you can have more autonomy, rather than fast-food where you’ll be micromanaged.

But most importantly, be prepared to be a manager if you want to be a high earner in an autonomous job, because seven of the top 10 highest-paid autonomous jobs are in leadership roles. After all, you won’t have to worry about a supervisor watching your every move if you’re the manager.

Finding Your Fit

If you’re up for the challenge, then you may be better suited for a difficult job like firefighting or construction work which offer opportunities for career advancement with on-the-job training. If you want a less physically demanding job, then one of the easier jobs might be a better fit for you, but be prepared to take on managerial responsibilities if you want a bigger paycheck, which can add to your stress load.

Ultimately, when choosing a career path, it’s essential to know yourself and what’s most important to you. Sounds easy enough, right? But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. You also need to know which jobs you’re most cut out for. Identifying those jobs, their requirements, and how to best package yourself for each one is where The Interview Guys come in. Not only will you get the best advice on how to conduct your job search, but our resources can also help you prepare for your interviews and weigh your options. Focus on figuring yourself out, and let The Interview Guys help with your next career move. 

Methodology and Limitations

We analyzed the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2020 Occupational Requirements Survey to explore which jobs had the most difficult requirements and those jobs with more relaxed conditions. We categorized job requirements by perceived difficulty, from physically hazardous job requirements like “exposure to extreme heat” to environments in which no specific physical abilities are necessary. We also identified job requirements considered highly managed, such as having a fast-paced job without the ability to pause, a supervisor present and checking work at all times, as well as jobs with seemingly low stress with relaxed working conditions. The occupations shown had at least 50% of the job requirements across these categories. Because there were very few jobs that met all the requirements of these categories, they were not analyzed due to sample sizes and fit within our methodology.

Fair Use Statement

Sharing is caring. If you’re interested in sharing our findings on job requirements and salaries, please do so for noncommercial purposes only. Also, please link back to our original study to give us credit for our work.