The Ten Worst Jobs


March 13, 1991|By TOM JURAVICH

UNIVERSITY PARK, PENNSYLVANIA. — Like most people, I still have vivid memories of my first job. After my senior year in high school, my father got me one in the factory where he worked. I took my place among a dozen other college-bound sons on the shop floor.

The message from the men at the mill was clear. We were to learn first-hand how bad factory work was and this would motivate us to study hard and get good white-collar jobs. This was in the '60s, and no self-respecting working man wanted his kid to live the life that he had.

In the 20 years since my first job, a lot has changed. The factory where I worked is almost gone now, along with close to 5,000 jobs in it. The white-collar service-sector jobs our fathers saw as our ticket out of the working class turned out to be much less than they were supposed to be.

And gone too is the expectation that we will easily surpass our fathers, as we struggle to approximate the decent lives they built for us on factory wages.

Despite the large-scale economic changes in the past two decades, our attitudes toward work continue to be frozen in an industrial past. For example, the ''Jobs-Rated Almanac,'' which rates 250 jobs, lists the lumberjack, roofer and construction worker among the worst 10, and legal assistant in the top 10. It has to be kidding. Lists like this are seriously out of touch with the reality of today's world and do not even include wretched jobs held by women.

No doubt sociologists could come up with a host of dimensions by which to rate jobs. But I think there is a much simpler way to look at them. A decent job is one that allows you to create a life around it; a bad job doesn't.

For example, in the mid-1970s, the Wall Street Journal ran a series that profiled what it considered the worst jobs in the nation. One was foundry worker.

No doubt this was dirty and dangerous. Yet the worker made good money, had medical insurance coverage and possessed a fair amount of autonomy and control over his work. It may not have been the job of his dreams, but he was able to make a pretty decent life for himself and his family.

Today, being a foundry worker cannot be described as one of the worst jobs in America. But with 1960s values, all we could see was the dirt, not the life.

The bad jobs of today are not dirty jobs in the factories or foundries of the past. Instead they are in the office buildings, the service industries of the future, and at the margins of economy. Although many of them are clean, they are just as dehumanizing as work on the assembly line.

Here's my list of the worst 10. They are not in ranked order; they're all equally lousy. I tried to stay away from very specific job categories that apply to only a very few people. The focus is on rotten jobs held by millions of Americans.

1. Data entry. Combine the supervisor's monitoring the number of key strokes, the repetitiousness of the task and the health hazards, with pay that hovers around the minimum wage, and you have jobs in what amounts to electronic sweatshops.

2. Electronic assembly worker. It is an industry of mostly women workers, many of them immigrants, performing minute operations soldering and assembling electronic components. Because of the foreign competition, wages and conditions are terrible.

3. Garment worker. Sweatshops in the garment industry are back in cities like New York and Philadelphia, where immigrants and children often work for wages below the minimum in substandard buildings that could easily go up in flames.

4. Janitorial-service persons and maids. These are among the fastest growing jobs in America and among the worst. Outside contractors squeeze profit by overworking and underpaying the workers. In a move reminiscent of the '20s, management in a luxury hotel in Boston told the maids to clean behind the toilets on their hands and knees with a toothbrush and that this is expected by the guests.

5. Food--service workers. This is another fast-growing field and it includes fast-food workers, food-preparation people, waiters and waitresses. But food is a very unstable business, with low profit margins and little promise of long-term employment.

6. Meat packers. This is an industry that has become increasingly centralized with a few giants that are notoriously anti-union and have driven down industry wages and benefits. Increased technology has not made it easier on the workers but has forced an industry-wide speed-up, resulting in some of the most dangerous jobs in America.

7. Migrant farm workers. They've never had the legal protection of other American workers, they're bombarded with pesticides, and until very recently their basic needs were ignored by growers who did not even have to provide bathroom facilities.

8. Telephone sales. Telephone workers are closely monitored, tied to the phone and the computer as they enter orders or information, and often are isolated from one another. An increasing number are working out of their homes, further depressing wages and benefits.

9. Booth sitters. They work in relative isolation, in fumes and bad weather on turnpikes, at tunnel entrances and in subways, at risk of robbery, in low-paying jobs on which, nonetheless, much public safety depends.

10. Civil service. Budget cuts have decimated state and city civil-service jobs. Those workers who remain are being asked to do the work of two persons under enormous stress.

Many of these jobs carry great responsibility and most are extremely repetitive and, to no small degree, dangerous. Almost all lack the stability of traditional factory jobs. Without a decent wage, medical insurance, a union or any job security, these are all jobs that prevent people from making a life for themselves or their family.

These are the worst jobs in America.

Tom Juravich is in the department of labor studies and industrial relations of Penn State University. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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