Government employees aren’t just paper-pushing bureaucrats. The 22 million Americans who work for federal, state, and local governments do all kinds of jobs, including repairing our roads and bridges, fighting fires, and teaching our kids. But that’s just the tip of the government jobs iceberg. We’ve rounded up 15 unusual or surprising jobs that federal, state, and local governments are paying people to do across the country. Do you think the government should be paying people to do this work?
1. Planetary protection officer
Planetary protection officer sounds like a job straight out of a science fiction film. But it’s a real gig at NASA (and it pays six figures). The Office of Planetary Protection is charged with protecting other planets — as well as moons, comets, and asteroids — from contamination by “Earth life.” It’s also responsible for keeping our planet safe from any alien life forms that might hitch a ride back to Earth. So basically it’s keeping us all safe from E.T.
Next: Currency examiners
2. Currency examiner
Money is a fragile thing. It can get ripped, torn, moldy, water-logged, and burnt. But even when your bills are barely recognizable, they might still be worth something. The U.S. Treasury employs a team of people — known as currency examiners — whose job it is to examine mutilated bills and reimburse people for their value. The service is free, and anyone with damaged bills can send them in and get them replaced, provided they’re still somewhat identifiable. And as NPR reported, people really will send them anything, including a brick of charred bills, boxes full of decaying cash, and $50 bills their dog ate.
Next: Horse wranglers
3. Horse wrangler
Giddyup! If you’re dreaming of life on the open range, then the Bureau of Land Management has a job for you. Every year, the federal agency hires temporary horse wranglers to work with the Wild Horse and Burro Program to help manage herds of wild horses and round up animals that are then adopted. The program is controversial though. Animal rights activists are opposed to the roundups, while environmentalists say the government isn’t doing enough to protect the land from overgrazing by the horses.
Next: Volcano observers
4. Volcano observer
There are 169 active volcanoes in the U.S., and someone needs to keep an eye on them and watch out for signs of eruptions. That’s why the state of Alaska — which has more active volcanoes than any other place in the U.S. — is looking to hire a geologist to work at the Alaska Volcano Observatory. The scientists at the observatory gather data on volcanic activity, so they can better predict an eruption and warn residents of volcano hazards.
Next: Professional sleepers
5. Professional sleeper
Attention, committed layabouts. NASA sometimes hires people to lie around in bed. A few years ago, the space agency was paying people $18,000 to spend three months in bad, tilted at a negative-6-degree angle. The goal of the studies, which are ongoing, is to learn how the human body adapts to being in space. The gig sounds stupidly easy, but participants say being stuck on your back for months and getting poked and prodded by researchers is not necessarily a picnic.
Next: Spider keepers
6. Spider keeper
Arachnophobes need not apply. The ABQ BioPark, a public zoo in New Mexico, is looking for a zookeeper to care for its arthropods. In other words, you’d be responsible for handling the zoo’s collection of spiders, scorpions, insects, crustaceans, and related animals. Clearly, this isn’t a job for anyone afraid of creepy-crawly creatures.
Next: Fire lookouts
7. Fire lookout
Forest fires can be deadly, especially if they’re allowed to rage out of control. Enter the fire lookout, whose job it is to hang out in remote watchtowers and monitor the surrounding wilderness for fires. Jack Kerouac once worked as a fire lookout, and the position has understandably been popular with creative types craving solitude. But the job is threatened by technology, with the number of staffed stations dropping from thousands to hundreds in recent years.
Next: Coin artists
8. Coin artists
Take a look at the change in your pocket. Someone designed all those images, presidents, and national monuments that grace your quarters and dimes. Not only does the U.S. Mint employ a team of five full-time sculptor-engravers, but it also sometimes works with outside artists to create new designs. Most people don’t know their names, but if you’re curious you can find their initials on the coins they designed.
Next: Foreign cemetery superintendents
9. Foreign cemetery superintendent
You know about Arlington National Cemetery and other military burial grounds in the U.S., but at least 125,000 American soldiers are buried in 25 different military cemeteries overseas. The American Battle Monuments Commission is in charge of maintaining all those cemeteries, and it’s looking for a person who wants to take over managing the American military cemeteries in Italy. The right individual will be one of just 25 people around the world “entrusted with the commemoration of America’s overseas military legacy.” Requirements include the ability to speak fluent Italian and an interest in the First and Second World Wars.
Chances are you’ve never heard of a geodesist, but it’s actually a pretty cool job. These people are responsible for precisely measuring and monitoring the shape of the Earth. According to the National Ocean Service, which employs geodesists, they can use satellite signals to track the rise of ocean levels down to the millimeter, rely on noise from space to measure the distance between points on our planet, and use atomic clocks and lasers to measure the pull of gravity.
Their work has a ton of applications, but the only you’re most familiar with is probably in your pocket. You have geodesists to thank for your phone’s handy GPS features.
Next: Braille transcribers
11. Braille transcriber
Government agencies (such as the city of Pasadena) sometimes hire Braille transcribers to translate written course materials for the visually impaired. It’s a complex job requiring special training, especially when it comes to translating textbooks with lots of graphics, noted the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. And there are relatively few people who can do the job. Hundreds more Braille transcribers will be needed in the coming years to meet the needs of low-vision or blind students.
Next: Bowling equipment repairers
12. Bowling equipment repairer
Who knew the government was in the bowling business? The U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation division manages recreation programs for soldiers and their families, including maintaining more than 70 bowling alleys. And they need people to keep all the balls rolling smoothly on those lanes. You can land a job as a bowling equipment worker or repairer at locations across the U.S. (and around the world), though you’ll need experience in the bowling industry to qualify.
Next: Jail locksmiths
13. Jail locksmith
Most people probably don’t think about it, but jails and prisons across the country need an army of locksmiths to make sure inmates stay where they’re supposed to. After all, a prison could have as many as 230 different locks in a single housing unit, and they all need to be working perfectly if the prison is going to function as it should. In Illinois, experienced locksmiths can snag a job working at the state’s Big Muddy Correctional Center that pays as much as $73,000 a year.
Next: Ferryboat captains
14. Ferryboat captain or crew
In some parts of the U.S., ferries are an integral part of the public transportation network. So it’s no surprise that governments hire people to captain and crew these boats. And getting the job might be easier than you think. To work as part of a ferry crew in North Carolina, you just need to understand the rules of road and be able launch a rescue vessel. One Oregon woman even managed to land a ferry captain job even though she had no prior experience with boats.
Next: Lighthouse keeper
15. Lighthouse keeper
Lighthouse keeping is a profession straight out of the 19th century. And since the government automated the last of its lighthouses in the late 1980s, the job has been basically obsolete, with one exception. The Coast Guard still employs one full-time keeper who lives and works at the lighthouse in Boston Harbor. But her job has less to do with keeping ships safe and more with giving tours, maintaining the grounds, and supervising assistant keepers.