Good jobs are hard to fill

Monday, June 8, 2009 | 3:35 p.m. CDT; updated 6:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 8, 2009

Portable-toilet cleaner. Sewer Inspector. Body-odor assessor. What do these jobs all have in common? Well, they’re not exactly apt to show up on little Jimmy’s “What I Want to Be” list, but they’re also, according to a recent poll, easier to fill than posts for teachers, nurses and IT staff.

Manpower Inc., a Fortune 500 company that deals in employment services, released the results of its annual “10 Hardest Jobs to Fill” survey at the end of May. The 10 jobs on the list were as follows: engineers, nurses, skilled traders, teachers, sales representatives, technicians, drivers, IT staff, laborers and machine operators. And every one of these jobs, Manpower reps noted, had made at least one cameo before.

I won’t speculate as to why all those jobs continually make the list, not only because titles like “laborers” and “technicians” seem almost incomprehensibly vague — you might as well say it’s hard to find “breadwinners” and “nine-to-fivers” — but because my family specializes in only three of those areas: the aforementioned teaching, nursing and IT-ing. Those jobs are also three crucial positions I imagine many would like to see filled and off the list.

I have three nurse-cousins, and my father spent lots of time around nurses during his decades as an emergency room doctor. When I asked him why he thought that job kept showing up on the list, he was quick to answer: “There are more nursing jobs than there are nurses. Next.”  

The sheer number of positions for these jobs certainly has a lot to do with it. For example, according to the national estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are roughly 100 nurses for every septic tank cleaner in the U.S., and logistics will make a smaller total of positions, no matter how undesirable, easier to fill.

These three jobs also mesh well with modern times. While technological advances kill off positions for journalists and assembly-line workers, the teachers, nurses and IT personnel of the world become increasingly more in demand. (We are, after all, living in the era of the Internet and “Wii elbow.”) 

This suitability to technological flux, coupled with a semi-imperviousness to economic depression, landed all three on Time magazine’s “10 Jobs for the Recession” list. In discussing the duties of nurses, the author noted this adaptability, saying, “Even when the economy suffers, people need medical treatment, and the number of older people who require care will grow rapidly as boomers age.”

So those jobs are hard to fill because volume and demand are strong, perhaps even overwhelming, but that doesn’t seem to tell the whole story. If you speak to current teachers, nurses and IT staff, you’ll find that all three, however rewarding, also have the potential to be pretty thankless endeavors.

I have yet to work at a business or attend a school where the IT guys (and gals), the lynch pins in every non-Mennonite empire, weren’t put in a basement or largely windowless, ignominious backroom, where they were made to stay until beckoned briefly out of their underworld. (My brother and his software-programming friends can well attest to this general truth of affairs.)

Though nurses are permitted to see daylight, they also put plenty of sweat into work for which they are sometimes under-appreciated. In a recent Newsweek article about the “nursing crisis," the writer explains that “the devaluation of nursing — both by overlooking nurses' contributions to positive outcomes for patients, and more subtly by emphasizing their devotion, compassion and self-sacrifice over their lifesaving skills — discourages students from the field and contributes to a critical nursing shortage.”

And I shudder to even remember the tales of fights, vitriolic parents and general black holes of intellectual enthusiasm that were daily encountered by my relatives and friends who officially or unofficially taught “for America.” They are, and always will be, more noble people than I.  

Then, inevitably, come the numbers. Though money is certainly worse in other professions, the average salary range for these three isn’t quite knocking socks off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary for teachers, nurses and IT staff are as follows: for secondary school teachers, $54,390; for registered nurses, $65,130; and for computer support specialists, $46,370.

That last piece of the puzzle also seems to be the answer. It would be hard to find quotidian positions more crucial than those three, and higher salaries (though obviously an unpopular solution in present economic climes) could get those jobs off the list — which, more importantly, would mean that medical care, education and the operations of countless companies were being improved. As my father said of the nursing shortage, the answer is on some level easy: “If you pay them, they will come.”

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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Andrew Hansen June 9, 2009 | 8:59 a.m.

"I have yet to work at a business or attend a school where the IT guys (and gals)...weren’t put in a basement or largely windowless, ignominious backroom.."

I have not seen an organization (MU included) where they are not constantly constantly changing the number of IT staff. One year they are adding people, while the next they turn around and layoff the most senior people in the department. IT is not a career if you want job stability.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 9, 2009 | 9:36 a.m.

There's no need to "speculate" on the situation with engineers: it's simply a classic case of supply versus demand.

Where does the problem lie? Not at university and technical institute level but in our public school systems, and it appears to be getting nothing but worse. You can't get into an accredited engineering program without having the necessary math skills.

(Report Comment)
Mikey Popshot June 9, 2009 | 11:03 p.m.

Katy, I find you witty and insightful, not to mention beautiful. Which is why you've left me shaking my head over your reliance on potty humor. You've dedicated valuable column inches to flatulence, and now you lean on a toilet-sewer-B.O. crutch.

We're about the same age ... remember the phrase "played out"? Attractive women making teen-boy humor was cute with Jenny McCarthy, but was played out about the time Sara Silverman divorced Jimmy Kimmel.

I'll continue to read your columns as long as you're at the Missourian -- I hope they provide me with a fun (if occasionally meandering) journey through the mind of a worldly and well-educated lady and don't give me flashbacks to my base middle-school locker room cracks.

And yes, I said "cracks."

(Report Comment)
Katy Steinmetz June 9, 2009 | 11:35 p.m.

Thank you for the compliments. (I'll never turn one away.) And I will keep your thoughts in mind; by no means am I trying to imitate or force anyone to relive Jenny McCarthy's heyday. Though if Rolling Stone asked me to be on their cover on the condition that I was covering myself in ketchup and mustard, I might just have to do it.

That said, I got guff two weeks ago for being overly cerebral, but I suppose I just can't please everyone. I will dedicate a Aristophanes joke to you next week though, in recompense.

(Report Comment)
Mikey Popshot June 10, 2009 | 7:47 a.m.

Oh Katy, Thanks for your reply, and curse you for making me swoon this early in the morning. An emphatic tut-tut for making me consult the wikis for a refresher on Aristophanes.

Meanwhile, you have earned a temporary pass from any and all criticism with your use of "guff."

Swoon, indeed.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 10, 2009 | 8:43 a.m.

"According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary for teachers, nurses and IT staff are as follows: for secondary school teachers, $54,390; for registered nurses, $65,130; and for computer support specialists, $46,370."

So all of them tend to earn more than the median salary in 2007, which was about $45,000 (for men). I'm not sure if increasing pay will help the shortage - there are likely other issues, such as the reluctance of many people to pick technically demanding careers, that may be at work here.

Health care has already suffered from an influx of people who are interested in little else than money. I doubt that education or computer operations will necessarily benefit from higher pay - in fact, it will likely make these activities that much more expensive while not improving results.

More isn't necessarily better.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith June 10, 2009 | 9:32 a.m.

For engineering graduates nationwide, simply increasing starting salaries for new graduates would have little immediate effect on supply. Longer term it would have some positive effect on supply.

Even in the present economic environment starting salaries run about $60,000 and some graduates are now getting offers of $100,000.

If an insufficient number of American students are studying to be engineers, dollars alone are not going to cure the situation - certainly not short term.

(Report Comment)
Matt Power June 10, 2009 | 11:27 a.m.

The IT salary chosen for this article is in fact one of the lowest salary categories. Another example: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the medial salary for computer systems administrators is $62,130.

A point I would like to make, in my view, is that nurses are in a unique category of shortage over and above teachers and IT workers. You can always pack more students into a single classroom, you can always make the fewer IT workers stretch to cover the workload, but you are limited in nursing. Hospitals simply must have a warm body caring for and saving patient lives.

I'm an IT/Engineering worker myself, and even during economic growth periods, employers can be picky. If you don't have that laundry list of skills that they seek, and specific vendor related certifications, and the right number of years experience, then they can always hold out a few more months and see what other candidates they get. Nurses practically get hired on the spot.

This pickiness I believe contributes to the shortage. Business has become so competitive, that there are fewer employers out there these days that are willing to develop the right person, subsequently, there are fewer people that have the skills and work experience they are looking for. Most people have the capacity to learn, but employers consistently hire people to do X only if they have been doing X for several years before. How is anyone expected to be challenged and become the skilled workers of tomorrow?

I studied engineering, but I found it hard to get my first job. I didn't have the experience to get the job. If such a shortage exists for engineers then why are there engineers sitting on the sidelines? I believe the reason it pickiness!

(Report Comment)

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