An Interactive Exploration Of Dead End Careers

Each industry has a career arc, but not all industries are created equal. Which ones are the worst and why?

By McLeod Brown & Chris Kolmar

People measure happiness in different ways. When it comes to work, salary is one of the most common measures.

Every career has a monetary arc - that is it’s highly likely that you’ll make more at 40 years old than you do in your early 20s. That being said though, not every career arc is equal.

According to the most recent Census data, the average person earns nearly $2.7 million over his or her lifetime. If we’re looking at that data by industry, though, some workers never sniff half that.

The Average Arc
We started by looking at what an average earner makes each year of their career using Census PUMS Microdata.

Grouping together workers by age, you can see how an average person's income rises throughout their mid-forties where it plateaus until retirement.

Pay Varies By Industry
When we break down incomes by industry, it becomes clear that some industries make a lot more than others over their career.

And the trajectory varies tremendously with some careers seeing over a 50% increase in salaries as their career progresses. While other industries' salaries barely increase.

5 Career Types Emerge
What really stood out to us was how there seemed to be tiers of similar industries with each tier sharing a similar career trajectory.

We identified 5 distinct groups of industries based on their career paths.

So we calculated the average income by age for these categories and, based on the industries, were able to label career arc types.

1. Lawyer Careers -- the only category with only one industry, they were such an outlier they had their own career path. Interestingly, paralegals and their equivalents are actually in this career type.

2. White-collar Careers - These are your business executives, scientists, finance, and computer programmer types.

3. Grey-collar Careers - These are professions that require some skills -- sales, police officers, and extraction workers. They are also a young woman's game as earnings fall off later in their career.

4. Blue-collar Careers -- Jobs like construction, admin support, and, surprisingly, education, where you can still build skills and earn a decent living.

5. Dead End Careers -- These industries have very low max earning potential, little room for advancement, and stagnant careers earnings.

Defining dead-end careers

Career Type Earnings Distribution

While legal occupations may stick out because they’re in a league of their own when it comes to income, we focused on the other end of the spectrum - that bottom rung of industries that experience little to no career progression over their lifetime.

We categorize these industries as the dreaded “dead-end jobs.” When we think of dead-end jobs, we think of the following qualities:

What makes these jobs so lackluster? We let the data tell the story.

These are the five worst industries to work in, ordered worst to “best:”

1. Food preparation and servers

Average salary age 25: $21,255
Average salary age 40: $26,289
Average lifetime income: $1,204,688

The worst industry to work in is food preparation and servers.

With a median annual wage of $22,730 nationwide, servers are paid next to nothing in hourly wages.

The industry is heavily dominated by younger workers, with the majority of people being under the age of 35. The industry also has the highest turnover rate.

Gender & Demographics
Gender-wise, the industry is fairly even. While younger workers in the industry tend to be male, women become the most prevalent gender in the late 40s group and continue that trend into their later years.

A solid education isn’t necessarily a huge requirement for these jobs either, hence the prevalence of teens working in restaurants as a summer job.

Geographic Breakdown
Nevada, Hawaii, and Montana are the states with the densest amount of workers in the industry.

New Jersey, Utah, and New York offer the most sparse numbers.

Depending on the metro area one works in, tips alone can potentially contribute thousands of dollars to a worker’s bank account. However, there are plenty of times where servers get stiffed or receive small tips.

2. Farming, fishing, and forestry

Average salary age 25: $22,246
Average salary age 40: $26,073
Average lifetime income: $1,281,066

The median annual wage across the industry was $24,390 in 2017, which checks out as one of the lowest paying occupation groups in the country.

Age distribution in the industry is evenly spread across the spectrum, with a slight peak showing in the 25 to 30 year-old age range.

Gender & Demographics
The industry is heavily dominated by males, with women holding only 23% of jobs in the industry.

The vast majority of this occupation group is comprised of agricultural workers. These workers maintain crops and tend to livestock under the supervision of farmers.

Many loggers work uninsured, as well, which is odd because the occupation is often ranked one of the most dangerous jobs out there.

Geographic Breakdown
California, Idaho, and Oregon are the states with the most concentrated cluster of jobs in the industry; makes sense with all of the open land each state has.

Rhode Island, Nevada, and New York have the least jobs per capita for the industry.

The industry is at risk of losing jobs due to continued automation and robotics, with loggers, foresters, and conservation workers actually expected to decline in numbers by 2026.

3. Personal care and service

Average salary age 25: $22,872
Average salary age 40: $30,221
Average lifetime income: $1,307,220

Entry-level pay for these occupations is extremely lackluster, with the bottom 10% of workers raking in just north of $18,100, which is barely above minimum wage.

Workers in the industry only experience a 33% pay increase from ages 25 to 60.

Age distribution in the industry is spread out evenly. The peak age for professions in the industry is 25, but overall there’s a balance between young and old throughout.

Gender & Demographics
Women dominate the industry, holding 75% of jobs in the industry across their lifetimes.

Cosmetologists and recreation workers - none of these jobs requires a bachelor’s degree. In fact, funeral service workers is the only profession listed needing at least an associate’s degree to perform the job.

Many of the jobs listed appear to stagnate skill-wise early in the workers’ careers. Similarly to restaurant workers, often times the only person above the workers in these establishments is the owner.

Geographic Breakdown
Nevada, California, and New Mexico have the highest location quotients for jobs in the industry.

Georgia, Alabama, and Oklahoma have the least amount of concentrated jobs.

If you’re in this industry, stay away from Texas. The state has the four metros that pay these workers the least annually.

Instead, try to establish yourself in the San Rafael metro area in California. Workers in this industry earn nearly $40k annually in the region.

4. Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance

Average salary age 25: $21,271
Average salary age 40: $27,817
Average lifetime income: $1,314,274

We continue our tour of low-paying industries with building and grounds cleaning and maintenance jobs.

Workers in this industry experience only a 34% pay increase from ages 25 to 60.

This tends to be an older industry, with jobs concentrated in the mid 40s to mid 50s range.

Gender & Demographics
Males dominate the employee count (Over 62% of the industry).

The gender pay gap is real in this industry, with women making $9,000 less than their male counterparts.

Thirty-nine percent of workers in the industry have less than a high school diploma, as well. No formal education is required to work in the industry.

Geographic Breakdown
Hawaii, Montana, and Nevada have the highest concentration of jobs in this industry.

Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee fall on the other end of the spectrum.

Large metro areas rank as the best-paying areas for the industry - Boston, San Francisco, and Oakland pay these workers the most, all upwards of $37,000.

Still, job projections for the industry are high. As the population continues to grow, infrastructure will continue to expand, and buildings will need to be taken care of.

5. Healthcare support

Average salary age 25: $25,061
Average salary age 40: $32,855
Average lifetime income: $1,479,498

Home health aides and nursing assistants - once again we have an industry that isn’t compensated well, but does very important work.

Workers in this industry experience only a 30% pay increase over their careers.

Positions in this industry are skewed on the younger side, with a particular concentration showing in the 20s. That’s not to say that older workers in the field don’t exist, but a lot are younger than 30.

Note: This group does NOT include doctors and nurses.

Gender & Demographics
Unlike the industry above, women dominate this industry, making up about 75% of the workforce.

And still, men make more. The average male earns $32k while women earn $25k.

Education again isn’t a huge requirement to work in this industry. For example, 63% of home health aides’ highest education is a high school diploma. That number is 60% for nursing assistants.

Geographic Breakdown
New York, Rhode Island, and New Jersey have the highest concentration of jobs in this industry.

Nevada, Vermont, and California are lacking in these positions.

California is home to eight of the 10 best-paying metro areas for this industry, including the top spot - San Francisco.

Workers in this industry make over $47k in San Francisco, not bad when compared to the other occupation groups on our list.

So what have we learned makes a dead-end job?

From the data, the qualities we defined at the beginning of the article check out.

1. Middle-management is almost non-existent.

The industries listed and majority of occupations within them have little to no middle management in their hierarchies. Work environments often go from the bottom worker directly to the owner or proprietor.

This means that the only way to “advance” in a field is essentially to start your own business in that industry. This takes money and education, which a lot of workers in these industries do not have because of the lack of opportunity to advance in their own companies.

It’s a vicious cycle that appears to only be solvable by workers taking initiative and pushing for more responsibilities, taking advantage of opportunities to educate themselves, and gain new skills to make them more valuable in the field.

2. Education requirement is low

The needed entry-level education to earn work in these industries is next-to-none, with the majority of occupations only requiring a high school diploma or less.

If a high school grad doesn’t go straight to college, chances are him or her are entering the labor force. Still, since they haven’t gotten a specialized four-year degree or even a certificate in some type of trade, the amount of work available to these grads isn’t the most diverse.

Entering jobs where the pay is low and opportunity to learn is only so much, high school grads leave themselves in a precarious position of not having chances to advance their careers without going back to school to learn more skills.

That’s not to say that everyone who has ever been a millionaire has gone to college, but the data shows that more education is linked to higher pay.

3. High turnover rates

Because workers tend to top out quick in pay and responsibilities, these industries do have high turnover rates with. Workers leave to learn new skills or for better-paying opportunities.

The idea of making money right after high school instead of going into student debt for college is appealing. But as workers get older and their wages don’t increase as quickly, the situation begins to lose its luster.

Don’t be in a dead-end job.

And if you feel like you are going nowhere in your career, ask yourself some questions:

Am I really enjoying what I do? What would have to happen for me to get promoted? If I were to be offered a promotion, would I even want it? When was the last time I learned a new skill?

It’s alright to not make as much money early in your career if you’re constantly learning new skills. That’s what entry-level work is meant to be.

But if you’re not making any money and you aren’t using your brain at work, it’s best for you to try and find an alternative.

Specific Methodology

Using the most recent PUMS data from the American Community Survey, we were able to drill down the data by age and average annual income. We were then able to group industries together according to the ACS system.

We only looked at full-time workers (>= 35 hrs/week) aged 18-60.

We graphed each industry to visualize the average worker income by age. The data showed there were distinct gaps among sets of industries, with one group sticking out as the obvious worst to work in.

Map data on the location of careers comes from the BLS.

Past Research & Data

Featured Research

About Zippia

We realized that quite often, people don’t know much about their career options, and how to change or advance their career. While we tried our best to mentor them, it was frustrating to know that there were still millions of people out there who we couldn’t help.

And then we noticed something else: The internet can answer almost any of our questions today – how to build a house, how to buy a car, or how to find love. But even though choosing a career is one of the most important decisions of our life, there is very little reliable guidance available online.

This is why we decided to build a platform that gives everybody the tools to find the career that is right for them.