A Harris Poll finds surprising views about prestigious jobs.

Ever since 1977, the renowned polling organization Harris Interactive has applied its scientific methodology to the question of how U.S. adults view various occupations in terms of prestige. Their latest survey was published last August, reporting results of a telephone survey conducted in July 2008. It contains some findings that I think have positive implications for people in the pipe trades.

The occupations at the top of the list, defined by the percentage of respondents who said the jobs carried “very great prestige,” were: firefighter (62 percent); scientist (57 percent); doctor (56 percent); nurse (54 percent);  and teacher/military officer (tied at 51 percent).

The least prestigious occupations, according to those polled, were: real estate agent/broker (5 percent); accountant (11 percent); stockbroker (13 percent); and actor (15 percent). No surprises among the first three, given the mess made of our economy by so many people in those jobs. It’s an oddity, though, that our celebrity-worshipping society ranks actors so low.

Unfortunately, this Harris Poll did not include a category for trade workers of any kind listed among the 23 occupations people were asked about. Nonetheless, I think the results are meaningful for PM readers.

One of the most striking interpretations is that there seems to be little correlation between pay and prestige in the public’s collective mind. Most of the occupations ranking high in prestige (firefighter, scientist, nurse, teacher, military officer) are not known for especially high pay, while some of the lowest-ranking occupations, such as stockbroker and actor, certainly are. (Except for the biggest stars, most actors and actresses struggle to make a living but when you mention “actor” to the average person, Brad Pitt is more likely to come to mind than someone working community theater.)

What’s most significant about the poll, it seems to me, is documenting public attitudes amid a backdrop of our worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The biggest gains from the previous year’s poll were business executive, up six points to 23 percent, military officer, gaining five points to 51 percent, and firefighter, up five points to 62 percent. Although business executives still rank rather low, their gain may be due to the fact people are realizing the importance of business to our economy. Military prestige probably can be attributed to a wave of patriotism and support for our armed forces serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The prestige attached to firefighting strikes me as most meaningful in terms of our industry. Police officers also ranked fairly high in the survey, with 44 percent of respondents attributing “very great prestige” to that job, and another 24 percent responding that it had “considerable prestige.” Not only do these occupations constitute valuable public service, they are essentially blue-collar jobs. Along with “farmer,” they are the only blue-collar occupations Harris asked people about, and the fact that people see them as prestigious may say something about a shift in values.

It seems the public at-large is starting to get the message that someone has to do the “dirty” jobs required for public safety and order, and that occupations ought to be judged more by their contributions to society than by the pay or education levels attached to them. If that’s the case, then pipe trades workers deserve to rank right up there with firefighters and cops.

Longer term, Harris tracked results throughout the 32-year history of this poll and found the biggest leap over that period belonged to the teacher category. In 1977, only 29 percent of those surveyed thought the job entailed very great prestige, compared with 51 percent in the latest version. This, too, represents a shift in attitude toward valuing people for contributions to society ahead of pay and phony status.

I grew up as part of a blue-collar family in a blue-collar neighborhood. We never knew any doctors, lawyers or business executives. My family and neighbors all looked up to skilled trade workers as the most solid and prosperous citizens, and worthy role models. The Harris Poll suggests a lot of people have gravitated toward that kind of thinking. 

It’s disappointing that plumber does not have a category of its own in the Harris Poll, though I suppose there are only so many occupations you can ask people to rank before they get tired and stop cooperating. I’m willing to bet, however, that if plumber were a category, we would see an upward trend in its prestige ranking.

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