Floor Employment

When I was in college, I had two career plans lined up. First, I could become a philosophy Ph. D and eventually professor. Second, I could go into medicine.

I still remember the moment I chose the latter. I was hiking the summer of my junior year, and I decided to spend a day just comparing pros and cons and coming up with a final conclusion, and although I can’t remember the reasoning involved I decided it was definitely the doctor one.

And that went well, because now I hear all grad student would-be professors are kind of doomed, philosophers not excepted. But I still give some thought to my poor counterfactual self, lost in a hostile career market with no useful skills.

And unfortunately a few of my real friends, grad student and otherwise, are in that position right now, which makes my heart sink every time I hear from them. I enjoyed reading Louie’s story of how he got rich working in Australia, because it suggests there are still ways to turn your life around really quickly and without much fuss. Jobs you can just walk into – no sending out hundreds of resumes and having your soul slowly sucked out with each interview you don’t get – that can give you the financial cushion to reach some more permanent state of self-sufficiency.

But people who have tried to replicate Louie’s success have had mixed results, and besides not everyone can go to Australia.

So I’ve been thinking about this idea of “floor jobs”. By a floor job, I mean something that puts a floor in how bad and desperate your life can be. As in “I won’t be unemployed forever, I can always go do X”. Or “I won’t be working at this miserable fast-food place with this boss I hate forever, I can always just do X”. A lot of this depends on just how unlucky you are – the floor for high-IQ people with savings and college degrees is quite a bit higher than the floor for less smart people with no qualifications who need something now.

But floor jobs all need a couple of characteristics to count. First, they don’t need formal specialized education: “engineer” is not a floor job because you need to be in school for several years getting an engineering degree. Second, they are all pretty easy to get – anywhere from “walk right in” to “send your resume to a few places but they’ll probably accept you” – none of this heartbreaking hundred-resumes no-interviews thing. Third, they all have some advantage over let’s say retail – either high pay, good working conditions, or medium-to-high social status (very few have all three).

These are some of my candidates for floor jobs right now. Disclaimer-1: with one exception, I know nothing about these jobs except what I hear second- and third- hand and through the Internet. Disclaimer-2: the phrase “floor” is not meant to imply that these are bad or dishonorable jobs, only that they are easily accessible and have some advantages.

English Teacher Abroad

I start with this one because I did it and loved it. Your ability to speak English is actually a heavily desired and respected skill in some parts of the world. Many of these parts of the world have very low costs of living and exotic scenery and friendly people.

The qualifications required vary with the jobs. Most countries prefer people with college degrees. A few don’t. Many schools prefer people with some sort of TEFL qualification (you can get an only-sort-of-fake one with a one week online course for $50. Others don’t care about this. You don’t need to know the language of the place you’re going, and in fact some schools actively prefer you don’t (on “English immersion” principles).

Visas are going to be the problem. It’s medium hard to get a job with a foreign English school in your home country; only the really big multinationals will bother recruiting abroad. One popular strategy, which works better in some countries than others, is to go to the country you’re interested in on a tourist visa, interview there, and let the school that hires you change it to a work visa.

Your worst-case scenario, if you have no qualifications and no tolerance for visa nonsense, is Cambodia. As I understand it, schools in Cambodia will hire high school graduates with no previous experience, and visas are handed out like candy.The only downside is that you do have to live in Cambodia.

If you have a couple more qualifications, time, and tolerance for nonsense, China is a good alternative. Japan used to be as well but I hear it’s getting a lot tougher (it pays really well, though) . Other places I hear nice things about include Thailand, South Korea, and Costa Rica.

Bottleneck: Money to get to foreign country, visas. College degree really helps.


Alyssa Vance makes the case for becoming a programmer if you don’t like what you’re doing now.

It’s high-paying and fun, you can learn it on your own without worrying about college degrees and such, and there’s lots of demand.

The downside is that you have to have a spare six months or so to start learning programming, the willpower to actually do so, and the analytical skills to become good at it. Most people probably won’t.

If your limiting factor is time or self-motivatedness, schools like Dev Bootcamp offer to bring you from zero to full programmer capable of getting a $90K job in about two months – but the going is really hard and the tuition is just above $10K. App Academy is similar but has no up front cost – you pay them after you get a job. A warning: some friends here mention that these companies’ claims of “90+% job placement rate” are misleading, as halfway through they expel anyone who they don’t think will get a job in order to keep their numbers up.

Bottleneck: Time, money, natural programming ability, motivation

The Military

At least in America, if you’re young and fit the military is almost always happy to have you. People generally sign up for an eight year term, four of which are active and four of which are in the reserves. People who get good scores on occupational tests can usually avoid being front-line infantry if they want and learn useful-in-the-outside-world skills like technology or engineering. And it’s an honorable and high-social-status profession that provides good veterans’ benefits afterward.

People in high school (or part of the way through college) can take advantage of officer recruitment scholarships through ROTC.

If you’re from one of those mean awful countries that spends their money on food on education and universal free health care instead of subsidizing a people-hungry military-industrial complex, all is not lost. The French Foreign Legion takes anyone, French citizenship and French language ability not required. Best of all, your past (including criminal record) officially vanishes when you join the Legion, and you’re allowed to join under an assumed name. Between being in a legion, having a secret identity, and fighting evil-doers, you’re basically a superhero.

Bottleneck: Physical fitness, emotional fortitude, conformity with your ethical system, must like sand. French Foreign Legion only wants men, and you have to fly to France to sign up.


…is the gender-neutral version of “camgirl”. Another one that wins on ease of access. You sign up on a website. You show them a driver’s license to prove you’re 18. You set up a webcam. And people pay to watch you do sexy things.

In theory. Obviously this works better if you are female and very pretty. Very few women are clients of camsites, so if you are male your choice is pretty much to cater to gay men – which can also be lucrative if you’re up for it.

There seems to be a very wide salary range based on your attractiveness, gender, ability to self-promote, what you’re willing to do on camera, and how long you’re willing to spend online, not to mention just plain luck. It can range anywhere from “barely able to support yourself” to “there is no way people really give other people this much money for just sitting in front of a camera, is there?”.

This thread on Reddit has some interesting stories, and Ozy sometimes talks about zir experiences on zir blog.

Bottleneck: Attractiveness, conformity with your ethical system, low inhibitions

Anything In North Dakota

The US unemployment rate is 7.6%. The North Dakota unemployment rate is 3.3%. In some of the western counties, it’s less than 1%. The reason is obvious: they struck oil there a few years ago, and now the state is desperately trying to attract as many people as possible to help extract it and support the burgeoning community of oil extracters. Restaurants and convenience stores are desperate for workers and the pay reflects that.

Bottleneck: There’s not a lot of housing there, plus you have to live in North Dakota and it sounds miserable

Oil Rigs

Speaking of oil, and of living in terrible places, oil rigs are hiring. If you’re willing to live on a tiny and extremely flammable platform in the middle of the ocean for long stretches, they will offer you jobs that start around 30K quickly go up to about 100K, no particular qualifications required.

Rigzone.com talks a lot about engineers and such, but there seems to be a pretty big demand for just warm bodies to perform menial tasks as well, and the job includes a good learning curve where you have ample opportunities for advancement (insofar as moving to another part of the same couple-thousand-square-meter platform is an “advancement”).

And if you really don’t like the sea, there are always onshore oil rigs to consider, although I don’t think they pay quite as much.

Bottleneck: Willingness to live on tiny flammable platform in ocean.

Truck Driver

The most attractive thing about truck driver is probably the education arrangement. You say you want to become a truck driver. If the trucking companies want you, they will pay for your training course in exchange for a certain portion of your first year’s salary. And they probably will want you – trucking is a “http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2012/10/31/employers-desperate-to-fill-truck-driving-jobs/”>high demand industry right now.

Most people would find trucking unpleasant. But for people who like quiet and alone time and whose nightmare job is having to satisfy hordes of chattering customers to an exacting schedule every second of the day, it might be more tolerable than other options.

Bottleneck: Good driving record, ability to tolerate lifestyle


This one sort of breaks the rules in that it requires a lot of activation cost and agency and set-up and pandering. But many people I know have had very good experiences (and make very good money) tutoring (mostly rich) kids.

Obviously you have to have something you can tutor people in. But if you got into a good college or had a very good score on the SAT or similar standardized tests, or you have a college degree in some subject like Math or English, that’s probably good enough. Bonus points if you know something like Biology and can tutor aspiring medical students.

It can be exasperating trying to find people who need the tutoring, and the schedule can be kind of complicated, but wages seem to go up to three digits an hour in the best cases, and there are some sites that will help you.

Bottleneck: Book smarts, organizational/self-marketing ability, living in a place full of would-be over-achievers

Repetitive Computer Task Doer

This one wins the “ease of access” competition by a mile at the cost of losing the “acceptable pay” competition by a light-year.

Sites like Amazon Mechanical Turk and ODesk allow you to log in, do some basic data processing exercises for someone, and then get a small amount of money. Typical tasks include taking surveys or writing short articles.

The good news is all you need is a computer and a little bit of time, and there’s lots of work to be done and not a lot of people asking about qualifications. The bad news is that the pay is terrible, way below minimum wage. Depending on how quickly you finish them, some tasks can give you $1 to $3 an hour. Others pay less.

This is probably not a good way to support yourself. But if you happen to have support, or are just really desperate for a short period of time, you might be able to make enough money for some food or something with this one.

Bottleneck: Internet access, willingness to tolerate low salary

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28 Responses to Floor Employment

  1. Qiaochu Yuan says:

    You don’t need any organizational or self-marketing abilities to become a tutor! WyzAnt.com is a site where you can set up a profile and then basically wait for people to contact you for tutoring. Granted, you need to live in an area where that’s likely to happen (I did it in Boston), but the total amount of work you need to put in before getting paid by your first client is insanely low. (The catch is that WyzAnt takes a hefty cut for new tutors that gradually decreases as you tutor more. But eh.)

    • Oligopsony says:

      I also did WyzAnt in Boston (no doubt one of the better markets for that sort of thing.) Tips for the unethical: willingness to write lazy rich kids’ papers for them is a major plus – in fact, it occurs to me that doing such services online is probably a decent floor job – and the cream-skimming system is extremely easy to circumvent.

      Tutoring is also a good ego massager, because even though you’re acting as a servant to others they’re treating you as higher status. I understand how incredibly petty this is, but in floor-job circumstances it was a lifesaver, and I mean that literally.

    • Ben L says:

      I have also had success with universitytutor.com for part time work, at least. $30-$40 per hour in Houston.

    • ThrustVectoring says:

      Is there a good way for figuring out what areas do or do not work out for this sort of idea? Set up a tutoring profile and cover your living expenses with other work?

      • Oligopsony says:

        A priori I would expect it to be a function of the number of students enrolled in private universities, but since the opportunity cost to setting up a profile is nil, yeah, just go for it.

        • Mary says:

          Large cities also provide large number of younger school children.

        • ThrustVectoring says:

          I had a better idea of estimating, which is looking at tutoring profiles at wyzant for number of hours worked. But yeah, setting up a profile is very low opportunity cost, other than time/effort

  2. I believe “boring menial govt job” used to be a good floor option in the UK, but it’s not really available anymore due to things like outsourcing and cutbacks.

  3. Romeo Stevens says:

    Security dispatcher:
    Easy to get into, decent amount of demand. No dealing with actual situations face to face, you are the liaison between the police and alarm company clients. The big plus here is that you have a lot of downtime. I was able to get a lot of studying, writing, and reading done.
    Bottleneck: you are incentivized with better pay to work crappier hours, you will underestimate how well you can handle this. Ability to deal with angry people who were woken up by a raccoon at 3AM is necessary.

    The well paying stuff tends to be sporadic, but can be a good source of additional income. You can do this one from your laptop while wearing a bathrobe.
    Bottleneck: Finding clients, writing well.

  4. Eoin says:

    My uncle is going for the oilrigs in the North Sea at the moment. I’m torn between hoping he does and doesn’t get it. He needs the money but it seems much more hazardous than working elsewhere.

  5. Federico says:

    In the UK, many Indian parents want tutors for their kids, even in middle school; quite a few professional teachers supplement their income this way. I find that (nice) kids of this age are enthusiastic, because one-to-one tuition is a much better way to learn than schooling, and they are treated more like intelligent adults.

    Proofreading is another possibility; some university professors want to farm this out, because it can be time-consuming.

    Another education-related floor job is to create materials for primary school teachers: PowerPoint slides, worksheets etc. This also depends on personal contacts, but there is real demand and weak competition (free online materials aren’t very good). Many of these people also lack basic computer skills.

    Those with a musical ear might make a little money through Score Exchange, where one can charge people to download arrangements of out-of-copyright pieces. Should one have a (torrented) copy of Sibelius it isn’t hard to transcribe YouTube music in four or five voices, and then upload it for brass quintet, choir etc., although I’ve no idea of typical profits.

    Re: programming, not only can one teach oneself, but one can dip a toe in the water through simple jobs on sites like http://www.freelancer.co.uk/

  6. JJJ says:

    Happy ending massager- This pays better if you’re female, but the gay market can work if you’re not terribly unattractive. It’s basically impossible to catch an std if you stick to blowjobs with a condom or handjobs (no condom necessary). The main difficulty is finding clients without pissing of the authorities. I recommend setting up a profile on a dating website where you say you have a massage business and are looking to expand your clientele. Message some men who look they have few options, and they’ll connect the dots.

    Hypnotist- There’s little regulation of hypnosis, and there’s no central authority to say who is qualified as a hypnotist and who isn’t. You can pretty much just read how to do it on the internet, tell your friends you are a hypnotist, and start charging referrals $20-30. (There is a tiny chance of getting sued for doing this, but if you’re already broke I wouldn’t worry about it. Once you start getting more clients, a lawyer can write standard waiver for $100. Or if you’re absolutely paranoid, don’t mention the h-word and call you service “guided meditation”. )

  7. therefore the ideal job is... says:

    A military camperson who tutors repetitive English-language programming skills from a truck on a North Dakotan oil rig.

  8. Oligopsony says:

    Becker and Posner on suicidality as floor and its possible consequences:


  9. Ben L says:

    Your optimal employment link has “slatestarcodex” at the beginning so it doesn’t work.

  10. ozymandias42 says:

    It occurs to me that some other areas of the sex work business could be floor jobs (escorting, maybe prodomming if you already have the necessary equipment, maybe stripping?), but I’ve never done them myself so I wouldn’t be able to say.

  11. Sarah says:

    Hi! I have spent many, many years obsessing about unemployment!

    My most practical floor job is tutor.
    I have thought about joining the Air Force or Navy — they’d probably put me in radio or something.

    Also, in addition to the “English teacher abroad,” I have heard of the “White Person In The Room” job. Apparently Chinese companies like to seem international to investors and so on by having one white guy. You don’t have to do much besides go to meetings, wear a suit, and look white. I know people who have done this with their East Asian Studies PhDs. (But I expect this opportunity to disappear soon if it hasn’t already.)

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Good to see a fellow unemployment-obsesser.

      I knew some white people in Japan who got jobs as fake priests. Apparently most people want a wedding that has the trappings of being Christian, and Christianity is associated with white people in the minds of many Japanese. So wedding companies will hire white people to put on fake priest robes and say things in English like “I now pronounce you man and wife”. Apparently pays pretty well.

      But I bet you have to have the right connections, unlike English schools which are a bit more walk-in-the door-ish.

      • Mary says:

        Japanese axiom: Be born Shinto, marry Christian, die Buddhist.

        • Anon says:

          I’ve always heard it as: “The birth is blessed by Shintos, the marriage is blessed by Christians and the funeral is blessed by Buddhists.”

  12. Mary says:

    When my younger sister was in grad school, near Washington, tutoring grade school kids was the way grad students picked up more money.

    My mother’s done it since she retired from teaching.

  13. anon1 says:

    If you play an instrument, you can give music lessons to children. If they’re young enough you can help them a lot without having professional-level skills yourself.

    Proofreading is good but I don’t know how you’d go about finding professors who need it done. Do you put up fliers?

    If you live near a university, check out the psych and econ department websites for paid experiments. Sometimes they’re advertised in Craigslist’s misleading “volunteer” section as well. Unlike clinical studies you don’t have to risk your health or be diagnosed with a disease. In my experience MRI studies pay best, though I’ve found I can’t stand lying still for more than 90 minutes so I only sign up for short ones; EEGs pay next best; econ studies are variable (usually with a floor of whatever you’d get paid in a behavioral psych study) but sometimes pay very well; and “behavioral” psych studies (no extra equipment, just a computer) pay around $10/hr.

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  15. Michael Vassar says:

    I’d add poker, online or F2F.
    Also, obviously, I created MetaMed partly as a way to solve this problem for analytically capable people who can self manage well enough to do research reports similar to but more careful than what one might do in college.

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  17. Anonymous says:

    It is almost frightening how the thought process of my (previously) unemployed self mirrored your article.

    A couple of points to add, all based on previous experience:

    The American military does not require 4/4 contract. There are 3/5 contracts for infantry and other low-skilled, high demand positions. There is a 2/6 contract for those who want to serve active duty only for 2 years, and finish the rest in the active reserves. Of course, longer contracts do exist as well depending on the MOS (job).
    Of note is that it’ll take a minimum of a month (probably a lot longer) before getting shipped off to boot camp. People who need cash/place to stay/food immediately should consider other options, however limited so.
    Last thing to consider is when picking a job, pick one that gives you top security clearance. The clearance takes 8-10 years to expire, and you can easily make low 6 figures easily by getting a job that requires the clearance after your contract term is over.
    A valid strategy is to join the National Guard just for the security clearance and find a civilian job immediately after the completion of basic training and AIT. (Advanced Individual Training.)

    On the topic of Foreign English Teachers, Japan is a bad market to jump into.
    It is the country that is first on the minds of many young English speakers when they think about teaching abroad. The market is completely saturated.
    Many of my friends, and I myself only made around ~3000 yen or lower per hour, often without benefits and less than full time hours. Keep in mind that everything’s more expensive in Japan too.
    No. Your anime will not magically become better when you get to Japan. There is little hindrance to consuming Japanese media outside of Japan if you know Japanese. Yes, that goes for manga/visual novels/tv drama/porn, whatever else you can think of.

    Finally, Oil Rigs. (And North Dakota)
    I have digitally applied to ~100 oil companies without a single reply back. My resume is quite competitive compared to the average high school graduate, since I have the military background.
    Conjecture: companies hesitate to hire strangers who live hundreds of miles away, especially for labor positions.
    Rigzone will not help you (at least hasn’t helped me) when you’re looking for entry-level positions. There will be no response.
    I’d hesitate to outright advise people to physically apply in person, but my anecdote is that applying online is a futile endeavor.

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