How Can Mathematicians Have Best Job In U.S.?

A recent job survey tells us that mathematicians have the best job in America while lumberjacks have the worst. We visit an Ivy League math department and the timber lots of New Hampshire to investigate how this can be.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Last month, a record number of Americans filed new claims for jobless benefits. Some of those newly unemployed are taking the opportunity to leave unsatisfying careers for a new line of work. Others are being pushed into it by being laid off. Either way, they might benefit from a new study ranking the best and worst jobs in the U.S. Reporter Sean Hurley has more.

SEAN HURLEY: I got an axe for my birthday when I was 14.

(Soundbite of tree falling)

Ms. MARY HURLEY: It was because you were very interested in taking trees down.

HURLEY: That's my mom, Mary Hurley. Thanks for the axe, mom. She knew all about my dream, the life of a lumberjack.

Ms. HURLEY: They live outside. They wear their plaid shirt. They live in a log cabin on the top of a hill, and they yell out, you know, timber. It's just - it seemed like a really cool thing to you, I think.

HURLEY: And about the same time, I was failing out of algebra. My math skills haven't improved. I still get my deposit slips turned back to me. But for the last five months, I haven't been to the bank much. Like a growing number of people, I've been out of work. I've been reading job boards, sending out resumes, going after any and all opportunities that don't require math skills. But when I read a report about the best and worst jobs in America, I had to find out if it was true.

Mr. TONY LEE (Publisher, Jobsrated.com): The best job in the United States is mathematician.

HURLEY: That's Tony Lee, publisher of jobsrated.com. He oversees the study. So what's the worst job?

Mr. LEE: Lumberjack.

HURLEY: Lumberjack. So the best job in the United States is the thing I'm worst at, while the worst job in the United States is something I'm still kind of thinking about? Since the study is rooted in statistics and numbers rather than people, I thought, why not hear it from a real mathematician and a real lumberjack.

Dr. PETER WINKLER (Professor of Mathematics, Dartmouth College): Being a mathematician is not typically a high-stress job. It's not a job with a lot of deadlines. It's not a job which people depend on for life or death.

HURLEY: That's Dr. Peter Winkler, a professor of mathematics at Dartmouth College. Have you ever had a bad job as a mathematician?

Dr. WINKLER: I really can't say that I have. I'm a lucky guy. I mean, I admit it.

HURLEY: But what do mathematicians do exactly?

Dr. WINKLER: A lot of what a mathematician does is not readily explicable.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

HURLEY: Jamie Carpenter has worked as a lumberjack for nearly three decades. Now, he considers himself semi-retired. I asked him what it's like having the worst job in the United States.

Mr. JAMIE CARPENTER (Lumberjack): Everybody that does it loves it. I loved it. You know, I like to go out and, you know, cut trees. I like, you know, chopping big trees. And that's what, you know, all the guys that are in the business like to cut big trees.

HURLEY: But there is a pretty serious downside.

Mr. CARPENTER: I know a friend of mine who got killed, and he was just sawing up and landing. And he had done this his all life. You know, he knew what he was doing. He was going through a divorce at the time, didn't have his mind on what he was doing. And, you know, a log rolled down and crushed him. You know, you hear stories like that all the time.

HURLEY: The research team studied mortality rates, the tough conditions, and the conclusion was unavoidable.

Mr. LEE: I mean, lumberjack really kind of strikes out on every level. You know, the physical demands are a tremendous. The pay is really pretty poor.

HURLEY: Jamie can tell you all about the money part.

Mr. CARPENTER: The last year I was in business, I handled like almost half a million dollars. And think I've made $12,000 or $14,000. And my wife's an accountant. She came to me and said, Jamie, why do you keep doing this, you know? And she told me what I made. And I said, that's it. I've had it. You know, I work 60 hours a week. And, you know, I wasn't making about a dollar and 50 cents an hour, so. (Laughing) But I still loved it, doing what I was doing, you know?

HURLEY: When it comes down to it, isn't that really the point? Of course, it helps if you're making a little more than $1.50 an hour and you have a good chance of living through lunch. But to love what you do all day, I had one last question for Tony. And I don't know if radio reporters have any raking in this best or worst.

Mr. LEE: (Laughing) Yeah, they're in there, somewhere in the middle.

HURLEY: Somewhere in the middle, between the lumberjack and the mathematician, feels about right. Now, if I can only find a job. For NPR News, I'm Sean Hurley.

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