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The 10 Best (and Worst) Jobs for 2011

This week's surprisingly good news that companies went on a hiring spree in December is sure to raise the spirits of the unemployed, underemployed, and everyone else eager to make a move. And if you're in the market for a new job, CareerCast's just-released 2011 rankings of the best and worst jobs is a useful cheat sheet for where to focus your hunt.

CareerCast ranks 200 jobs from best to worst based on five broad metrics: Physical Demands, Work Environment, Income, Outlook (Job Growth), and Stress. Here are the overall winners based on their cumulative ratings:

2011 Best Jobs

  1. Software engineer
  2. Mathematician
  3. Actuary
  4. Statistician
  5. Computer systems analyst
  6. Meteorologist
  7. Biologist
  8. Historian
  9. Audiologist
  10. Dental hygienist
Software engineer landed the top spot on the strength of strong scores for job outlook (5th overall out of 200 jobs rated), work environment (5th), physical demands (12th), stress (15th), and income (23rd). The mid-level income for software engineers was a none-too-shabby $87,000, but that was second to mathematicians among the top 10 overall jobs (the mid-level income for mathematicians was $94,000).}

For comparison's sake, here's the list of the jobs that were at the bottom of the list:

2011 Worst Jobs

  1. Roustabout
  2. Ironworker
  3. Lumberjack
  4. Roofer
  5. Taxi driver
  6. Emergency medical technician
  7. Welder
  8. Painter
  9. Meter reader
  10. Construction worker
The Best Jobs list is not simply a ranking of the most lucrative jobs. You need to head to medical school for that. Doctors of all specialties consistently scored mid-level salaries in the six figures. But a high-stress work environment tended to pull down their overall scores. For example, surgeons had a mid-level income of more than $365,000 and a strong hiring outlook, but poor scores for work environment and stress pushed their overall rank on the list to 101.

The list of the best jobs for 2011 was pretty consistent with CareerCast's best rated jobs for 2010. Eight of last year's Top 10 repeated again this year, with only paralegal and accountant falling off the list, though barely.

2010 Best Jobs

  1. Actuary
  2. Software engineer
  3. Computer systems analyst
  4. Biologist
  5. Historian
  6. Mathematician
  7. Paralegal (13th in 2011)
  8. Statistician
  9. Accountant (12th in 2011)
  10. Dental hygienist
Potential regulation of the insurance industry added to the stress score for actuary in 2011, pushing that low-visibility career from its top slot in 2010 to a still impressive #3 on this year's list.

It's a left-brain job market....

Clearly, math, science, and technology skills are the ticket into the highest-rated jobs; the job outlook for tech jobs is a main driver of their high ranking. CareerCast notes that demand for smartphone apps, the growth of cloud computing, and the seemingly inexorable pursuit of computer-based business systems are why software engineer, computer systems analyst, technical writer, and computer programmer all land in the Top 30. That said, while computer programmer had a strong overall score (27th), it's not expected to be easy pickings for job seekers in that field in the coming years (the survey uses Bureau of Labor Statistic job growth forecasts). Not that computer programmers won't be in demand in the future, but more of those jobs are expected to be outsourced to other parts of the world.

...But career success still requires a whole-brain approach
If you're a high school student staring at the best jobs list -- or the parent who is soon to be paying the bill for college -- it would be natural and entirely reasonable to assume the "smart" majors are in the tech and math fields. And there's obviously nothing wrong with those choices if that's what you're passionate about. But zeroing in on a specific skill isn't necessarily the ticket to career success.

Nobel-laureate Gary Becker, a pioneer in the field of human capital, told MoneyWatch that flexibility is one of the most important job skills for navigating the 21st century economy and job market. His advice for acquiring that flexibility?

A liberal arts education. I wrote about this 40 years ago, but I think it's become even more important today. In an uncertain world, where you don't know what the economic situation will be like 20 years from now, you want an education based on general principles rather than on specific skills.
Sure, at some point you need to pick up specific skills as well, but Becker's advice makes sense. Starting with a broad-based education builds a solid foundation that should help you adapt to an evolving economy that just might produce a radically different Top 10 best jobs list in the future.

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