The Smallest Professions in America


Approximately 133 million people are employed in the United States as of May 2011, working in hundreds of different occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Different jobs vary in size. Some categories employ millions of Americans, while a select few count only hundreds among their ranks. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed BLS data to find the 10 jobs with the fewest people employed.

There are nearly 4.3 million retail salespeople in the United States, making it the biggest occupation in the country. There are more than 2.7 million nurses, 1.4 million elementary school teachers and more than 1.2 million maintenance workers. However, there are only roughly 1,000 prosthodontists and just 300 farm labor contractors in the entire country.

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On the surface, a few of these jobs appear obsolete — think wood patternmakers and radio operators. Yet many of them expect to see growth — albeit small — in headcount between 2010 and 2020. Several other jobs, such as geographers, are expected to grow substantially during the decade. As a result of the small number of people in these jobs, many of these occupations experience major fluctuations. While there were 1,240 wood patternmakers in 2010, there were only 820 in 2011, a decline of about 34%.

The jobs on this list require different levels of education and training. Farm labor contractors do not need a high school diploma. However, prosthodontists generally require doctorate degrees. Similarly, the jobs on this list have a wide range of pay. Prosthodontists had a mean wage in the low six-digit figures in 2011. However, the annual pay of fabric menders, an occupation that requires minimal education, was not even $30,000.

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24/7 Wall St. identified the jobs that employ the fewest people, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010 Occupational Outlook Handbook data. While 2011 job-count data were available from the BLS, we opted for the 2010 data, as self-employment figures were included. We also considered the mean wages for these occupations, along with the pay at the 25th, 75th and 90th percentile in each profession. In addition, we reviewed the projected headcount growth between 2010 and 2020 from BLS National Employment Matrix to determine whether these jobs are growing or shrinking.

These are the smallest professions in America.

10. Geographers > Number of jobs: 1,600 > Median hourly wage: $35.94 > Median annual wage: $74,760

Geographers are responsible for analyzing the geographic traits of specific areas, local and global. Though the number of geographers is expected to increase by 35.4% from 2010 to 2020, this would still mean only about 2,200 geographer jobs would exist by the end of the decade. The median annual wage for geographers was $74,760 in 2011, up slightly from $72,800 in 2010. Some geographers were especially well paid, however, with those in the 90th percentile earning more than $104,000 last year.

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9. Models > Number of jobs: 1,400 > Median hourly wage: $8.79 > Median annual wage: $18,670

Full-time modeling is certainly not as glamorous as the media makes the profession out to be, and the position is not as lucrative as it is portrayed, either. While the superstar, household name models can end up making millions of dollars, most models make quite a modest living — the median pay for a model in 2011 was a mere $18,670, or just $8.97 an hour. Headcount for models is expected to grow 14% between 2010 and 2020, which the BLS notes is as fast as the average amount of growth for all occupations. Unsurprisingly, the BLS notes that modeling attracts a lot of applicants, and “competition for jobs will be strong.”

8. Segmental Pavers > Number of jobs: 1,300 > Median hourly wage: $15.55 > Median annual wage: $32,340

According to the BLS, segmental pavers “lay out, cut, and place segmental paving units.” Though there were just 1,300 such workers in the U.S. in 2010, this number is projected to rise by 33.1% between then and 2020, when there will be 1,800 jobs. The job does not pay exceptionally well; the median annual wage for segmental pavers was $32,340 in 2011, below the national median of $34,460 for all occupations. However, the 2011 median wage does represent a moderate improvement of the 2010 median annual wage, which was $30,430.

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7. Patternmakers (Wood) > Number of jobs: 1,200 (tied for sixth highest) > Median hourly wage: $18.69 > Median annual wage: $38,870

Wood patternmakers, the BLS notes, are concentrated in just a handful of states. Both Michigan and Illinois have between 80 and 100 patternmakers, according to the BLS, while 40 to 50 patternmakers are located in California, North Carolina, Oregon and Pennsylvania. The BLS says the field is expected to grow in headcount by just 4.3% between 2010 and 2020, compared to the 14.3% increase for all U.S. jobs. The median 2011 wage of $38,870 was a moderate increase from $34,640 in 2010. The median 2011 salary was below the $39,950 metal and plastic patternmakers made, as well as below the $39,800 fabric and apparel patternmakers earned.

6. Radio Operators > Number of jobs: 1,200 (tied for sixth highest) > Median hourly wage: $21.54 > Median annual wage: $44,810

Compared to tablet computers, smartphones and even smart TVs, radios seem old-fashioned. It should come as no surprise that there are few radio operators in the United States. However, the number of radio operators is expected to grow by 7% between 2010 and 2020. The median annual wage of a radio operator in 2011 was $44,810, barely up from $44,630 in 2010. Operators in the 75th percentile made over $58,640 in 2011, and those in the 90th percentile made over $71,080.

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