[ Question ]

How to assess employment impact

bySeanny12315d5th Feb 20193 comments


Assuming I am seeking employment for the purposes of Direct Impact, how does one assess the Impact of a job which does not directly fall under the 80,000 Hours recommended causes.

Emagin Example

For example, let's consider my current employment as a Data Scientist for Emagin Clean Technologies Inc. Emagin creates software for water management systems. The primary feature of the software creates forecasts for water demand and recommends control schedules accordingly. Other features include asset monitoring.

Basically, the water industry has been understandably slow to adapt new analysis technology to leverage the tons of monitoring data they have accumulated.

Evidence for Impactfulness

As climate change increases the amount of extreme weather events and populations grow, the typical laissez-faire approach to water management becomes unfeasible. The effect of misaligned incentives becomes catastrophic, as shown by the droughts in California and South Africa. Having accessible analytics allows for a better understanding of the system being examined. Thus, assuming political will, incentives can be restructured, plans/investments can be made and human suffering mitigated.

Evidence against Impactfulness

There may be other forms of reactive climate change mitigation which are more impactful? The effects of climate change on municipalities who can buy the software are minimal compare to other causes? The skill set required to complete this work is easily transferred to a different, more impactful domain?

1 Answers


Feb 05, 2019


Try asking some of the same questions 80,000 Hours does when they look at careers for themselves!

(I don't claim to reflect their views perfectly here -- this is a quick answer that aims to sum up the basics without any major mistakes.)

For example, you can see that their list of career reviews uses five elements to "score" each career path. They are:

  • Direct impact: This is the hardest thing to calculate, but an easy substitute question is: "How much am I helping the world, compared to if I didn't exist and someone else had taken this job?"
    • For some jobs, the personal views and strategies of the employee matter a lot (an election choosing which politician gets a "job" could have a huge effect on how much good the person in that "job" can do). Other jobs aren't this way (which of two accountants gets a job probably won't matter very much to the world, unless one of them was grossly incompetent).
    • For your engineering position, you might think: "I was chosen over someone. How good would that person have been if I didn't take the job? What are some unusual, unlikely, or particularly skilled things I've done on the job?" Even if your job itself has a lot of high-impact features, your direct impact may not be as high unless the person you "replaced" wouldn't have done a very good job.
    • Questions about this idea (known as "replaceability") are complicated to figure out, since you can never really know who would have taken your job (or what that person is doing now, since they didn't take it), but it still provides a useful starting point.
  • Advocacy potential: Does your job put you in a good position to reach a lot of people, or some very important people? (Some media or other "public" positions are good for this; most engineering positions don't seem especially good, since the work tends to be done privately or in small teams.)
  • Earnings: Engineering tends to do well on this criterion, but that still depends on what you do with the money you earn.
  • Career capital: How well does your job set you up to do high-impact work later? Some ways that engineering might create this "capital": You rise to an executive position later on, you start your own company using your experience, you consult for governments and help them set up better water policy than they would have otherwise, etc.
  • Ease of competition: This factor only really matters for choosing a job, so it doesn't seem relevant here.

Your last question (about how your skillset might transfer to a more impactful domain) seems really important. Have you looked at open engineering positions on the 80,000 Hours Job Board or in the EA Job Postings Facebook group? Those positions are likely to have few "competitors" (since most EA orgs are small), and thus, high "replaceability" value (if you don't take the job, they might not find anyone, or find a weaker candidate).

Let me know if you have questions about any of this!