If you want to find the top-paying jobs in the US tech industry, you may want to look in the obvious places--Montgomery, Ala., Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Fort Smith, Ark., for instance.
Surprised? So were we. But for those looking to make top dollar as programmers, systems engineers and hardware technicians, these seemingly technologically out-of-the-way metros rival better-known high-tech hubs like San Francisco, Boston, New York and Washington D.C., for wages.
Such places often have niche local employers for IT professionals, not to mention much lower costs of living than the industry's traditional epicenters. A programmer earning $100,000 per year in San Jose, Calif., for example, would only need to earn $61,515 in Montgomery, according to data from ACCRA, a nonprofit that compiles cost-of-living data.
But what could you do there? Plenty. Montgomery is home to Maxwell Air Force base, one of four primary computing hubs for the US Department of Defense, and the 754th Electronic Systems Group, which handles high-tech support for the Air Forces' logistics, financial, medical and personnel operations.
This is the place that deploys the suite of Microsoft desktop applications that go on every PC in the Air Force, among other things, and is involved in one of the biggest Oracle rollouts in the DOD right now.
A host of big-name companies all have offices in Montgomery to support the group, among them Oracle, BAE Systems and Dell.
"For IT, this is the center of mass for change," says Greg Garcia, director of the 754th. He just moved there a year ago from Tucson, Ariz., and says he loves the schools for his two daughters, the southern hospitality and, of course, how much further his dollars go.
"It's great," he says. "For the price of a house in Boston, you'd get three in Montgomery."
Looking for such surprises, we've compiled two lists: one ranks the places with the overall highest-paid tech jobs in the U.S.; the other ranks the places where each type of tech job commands the best pay check.
To compile our lists, we mined the data in the U.S. government's Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. The most recent were published earlier this year, though the data are from 2005.
These are based on a national survey of full- and part-time workers who are paid a wage or salary. It takes into account basic pay, incentive bonuses and commissions, but not overtime pay or nonwage compensation, such as stock options.
Jobs of the future
The data cover firms of every size but do not include the self-employed, owners and partners in unincorporated firms, household workers or unpaid family workers.
We only looked at the 3 million computer-industry jobs that were surveyed, such as hardware and software engineer, systems analyst, programmer, and network and database administrator.
To find the best-paying jobs, we first screened out all but the positions that pay in the top 10 per cent of tech-industry jobs in each location. We then ranked the top 25 places.
We used the standard statistical classification for metropolitan areas in the U.S. But we then looked at districts within each metro area as well as the New England town equivalent, where available, to narrow the selection to as specific an area as possible.
And since many job seekers look for a specific type of work, we also looked at the jobs by type and ranked the five metros where the average annual salary was highest.
In this second perspective, information research scientists are at the top of the pay heap, earning an average of $94,030 per year across the country, and with those in the southern end of Silicon Valley earning an average of $131,000 per year.
Industry matters to pay prospects too. The sweet spot in the computer industry is to be a research scientist working in a wholesale trade. There are only 620 of them, but the top 10 per cent earn $143,950 per year.
The next best-paid group within the computer industry is systems software engineers ($84,310 per year on average; with the best average pay to be found in Fort Smith on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border), followed by applications software engineers ($79,540, with York-Hanover, Pa., at the top at $114,110).
The mining industry pays top dollar for computer programmers, with the top 10 per cent of jobs paying $115,060 per year. But there are only 860 jobs at any level, and the average annual wage is $72,150.
The cheapest employers of programmers are federal, state and local governments. They employ 16,450 of them at an annual average wage of $54,210, with the top 10 per cent earning $74,870 per year.
The average for programmers in all industries is $67,400. Not bad, especially when you think about it this way: That's six times as much as a similarly qualified programmer earns in India.