America's most competitive jobs

2008-07-18 02:36:21 Forbes

Thirty years ago, when James Lubic attended "watching school," watch repair was still primarily a family business, typically passed on from father to son. But as technology improved, watches stopped breaking so frequently (and became much cheaper), so people often simply replaced a watch when needed.

Those were very bad developments for families in the watch repair business.

"Watchmaker fathers started telling their kids to go to college, because it became tough to make a living in the profession," says Lubic, a watch repairer since the 1970s and executive director of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute in Harrison, Ohio.

Obviously, watches still break and still need to get fixed. But not enough to necessitate many rookie watch repairers. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are fewer than 500 job openings in the field annually. That makes it one of the 10 most competitive jobs in America along with prosthodontists, wooden model makers, hunters and trappers, radio operators and astronomers.

To compile our list of America's most competitive jobs, we looked at projected annual average job openings from 2006 through 2016, as estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. All the jobs on the list have fewer than 500 openings annually.

Some of the fields, like watch repair, are dying. Others, like astronomy, are just such niche professions that the need for new workers is minimal. The same goes for hunters and trappers, "wildlife conservators," as many in the field prefer to be called. Calling them hunters gives the wrong impression, says one professional.

"Almost everyone in this office has a bachelor's degree in wildlife or fisheries conservation," says Kory McLellan, a wildlife conservator in the Vermont office of the United States Department of Agriculture's animal control unit. "It's not just, 'I grew up hunting and I'm going to get a job in this field.' Yes, we use trapping and forms of hunting as tools for what we do, but it's not all of what we do."

So what do they do? That depends on where they work. In Vermont, for instance, Canada geese tend to get sucked into airplane engines if they're not diverted away from airports. One method for controlling them is a propane-powered cannon--picture a large-scale firecracker--that emits an ear-shattering boom to scare the geese away. Less forceful methods include using Border Collies or hawks to scare them off.

Much of the work is seasonal, keeping the field of professionals small. That's why many of McLellan's former classmates didn't get jobs in the field. "Even more than ever, you need a master's degree to get a job out of school in this field," he says. "The pay isn't great. You don't get this job for the money. You get it because you enjoy it."

No one enjoys going to the prosthodontists. They're the dental specialists who make dentures, bridges and crowns. The need for them is greater than ever, says Gary Goldstein, professor of prosthodontics at New York University, because of the aging population that requires specialized dental treatment. But there aren't enough schools to train professionals, resulting in a shortage of prosthodontists.

Goldstein says the professional organization has petitioned the American Dental Association to build more schools, to no avail. The bottom line: Take really good care of your teeth.

(Tara Weiss,