(Epistemic note: this is quickly written and outside of my area of expertise, but it felt worth publishing anyway since I haven't seen this argument given much attention elsewhere. It is partially a response to EA for dumb people?.)

Rhetoric about EA cause areas being "neglected" and talent-constrained can give a misleading impression about the state of play for those seeking to orient their careers toward working on some of the most important issues in the world. Jobs at EA organizations and in non-EA settings where aligned work takes place are still highly competitive, and the skills and abilities considered minimally acceptable for those positions are typically set at a level that places those opportunities out of reach for the vast majority of the general population. 

We've seen indications of how frustrating this situation can be for people who find the ideas of effective altruism appealing but find them hard to act on in practice. I firmly believe, however, that the question of "how can I do the most good?" is a question that anyone can and should be encouraged to ask.  One potential solution I'd like to see explored in more depth is an exploration of career options that are high-impact relative to the skills or abilities required for the job.

In particular, I'm optimistic about the degree to which labor shortages can be leveraged as a pathway to impact. As Will MacAskill discusses in Doing Good Better, the impact you have in your career is only as large as the value you offer over whoever would be doing your job in your stead. In contexts where competition for jobs is fierce (including in most direct-work roles at EA organizations), this seems like an important point that is often overlooked in contemporary discourse. Put another way, I suspect that many people in or sympathetic to EA may be overweighting the importance of their chosen career in comparison to its neglectedness. For all but a very few of us in EA careers, it's likely that the impact we are personally having in our role is only a small—if we're being pessimistic, perhaps even tiny or nonexistent—fraction of the impact of the role itself, thanks to the presence of many other talented candidates who would be eager to take our place.

By contrast, in the context of a true labor shortage one can claim credit for most, if not all, of the counterfactual impact that one has in showing up every day to work. And some of these careers are pretty damn important! Currently in the United States, there are critical labor shortages among nurses, child care workers, truck drivers, and home health aides, some of which predate the pandemic and current economic environment. I'd love to hear examples of shortages in other industries and in other places around the world.

Looking after the wellbeing of dozens of children in the early years of their lives or helping to improve health outcomes for hundreds if not thousands of people over the course of a year strikes me as among the highest-impact things one can accomplish as a single individual, especially when the counterfactual outcome is that the position doesn't get filled at all. In my view, a person who makes a well-informed choice to pursue paths like these because they judge it to be the best way that they can personally contribute to the survival and flourishing of the world is every bit as much of an effective altruist as someone who works at Rethink Priorities or FHI, and we should welcome and treat them as such.

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Hey thanks for this post. I think this kind of perspective is really important and one I wish I would see more of in the EA community.

As you probably gathered from my post, I felt like the high impact jobs that are promoted feel out of reach to me - and I probably shouldn’t bother getting upset about this as there likely are people who are a better fit than me and would do a better job. I feel as though the idea of finding out on a more personal level how you can make the most impact should be promoted more in EA - I know that is what it’s about at its core, but it does get lost in all the info out there about being an AI alignment researcher or stopping the next pandemic.

I think you are right that we often forget the marginal nature of the contributions made in a highly-sought-after job. "Do I offer more than the next best candidate?" is a question we forget to ask.

I suspect the effectiveness of "nurses, child care workers, truck drivers, and home health aides", while higher than a typical job, might pale in comparison to more targeted work like independent projects or effective giving. Someone donating 10% of the median US salary to effective causes can expect to save approximately one life per year - a high threshold indeed.