Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Careers That Keep You Out of the Cubicle

Are you hoping to avoid the Dilbert work environment? Specifically, do you desire a career that doesn’t require you to sit at a desk all day? I have some suggestions for you.

Maybe you have an antsy personality. Something about you is not satisfied with sitting in one place all day. If you feel strongly about this, you don’t have to explain why.

On the other hand, maybe you favor an active occupation because you are aware that it would be better for your health. Researchers have linked desk jobs to increased incidence of back pain, eyestrain, obesity, and even colon cancer. One Australian study found that men who sit at their desks for more than six hours per day were almost twice as likely to be obese as men who sit for less than 45 minutes. An American study found that women who worked at a sedentary job for 14 years gained 20 pounds more than women who worked in the least sedentary jobs.

Whatever your reason is for seeking active work, that kind of occupation is harder to find than it used to be. The shift to an information-based economy has meant a constant increase in the proportion of workers who manipulate data for a living—and who therefore spend most of the workday sitting at a desk. Researchers have estimated that the percentage of workers in physically demanding occupations decreased from about 20 percent in 1950 to less than 8 percent in 1996. Even in offices, people are probably doing less physical work than they used to do in the days when desk workers cranked mimeograph machines, hand-collated documents, whacked staplers, carried memos from one room to another, and typed (and re-typed) on manual typewriters.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of high-activity occupations for people who prefer them. And these are not just menial jobs that are likely to be phased out as soon as someone invents the right kind of robot to do them. Many active occupations have good earnings and are expected to have good job opportunities. They allow you to use your brains as well as your muscles and involve the kinds of people and problems that can keep you interested in your work.

To identify these occupations, I looked at two measures in the O*NET database that indicate level of physical activity. One is a work activity measure called Performing General Physical Activities. It is defined as “Performing physical activities that require considerable use of your arms and legs and moving your whole body, such as climbing, lifting, balancing, walking, stooping, and handling of materials.” Every occupation has a rating between 0 and 7 on this measure. The other measure is a physical work condition called Spending Time Sitting, which represents how much the occupation requires sitting. (Despite the name, it is not strictly a measure of time.) This measure also uses a rating scale between 0 and 7, so I subtracted each occupation’s rating from 7 to determine the amount to which the occupation does not involve sitting. I then took the average of these two work activity measures to get an overall score indicating the level of physical activity—i.e., how much the occupation is not behind a desk. Then I removed the least-active half of the occupations and kept the most-active half.

This was still a large list, so to focus on the most rewarding occupations, I followed the procedures I use in the “Best Jobs” series of books. I eliminated occupations that lack economic data, those with a particularly dismal outlook, and those that pay only a pittance. Then I ranked the 340 remaining nonsedentary occupations three times, based on these major criteria: median annual earnings (May 2011 estimates), projected growth through 2020, and number of job openings projected per year through 2020.

Here are the best 30 occupations that don’t trap you behind a desk. The figures for “Physical” and “Sitting” indicate how each occupation scores on overall physical activity and requirement of sitting, on a scale where 0 is minimal and 1 is maximal:

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