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America's best- and worst-paying jobs

June 08, 2007 08:45 IST

When we first looked at America's best- and worst-paying jobs a year back, we asked the question, "Why do financially pushy parents want their children to marry doctors?" Our answer then: Because, as Willie Sutton said of banks, that is where the money is. Still is.

The medical profession continues to dominate the top end of our list of the 25 best- and worst-paying jobs in America. Anesthesiologists have flipped places with surgeons to take the top spot, but the next eight places are firmly in the healing hands of various sorts of specialist practitioners.

Chief executives, at No. 10, and airline pilots, at No. 14, are the only two non-medical occupations in the top 15. Even lawyers don't make it. They're No. 16.

At the other end of the scale are jobs in restaurants, hotels and leisure businesses. The lowest paid of all? People who cook, prepare and serve in fast-food joints, followed by dishwashers, busboys and the folk who show you to your seat in coffee-shops and the like.

According to government data, the mean annual salary for America's 29,890 anesthesiologists is $184,340; for its 2.5 million fast-food preparers and servers, $15,230. The mean annual pay for all jobs is $39,190. In all, the lowest-paying 25 occupations employ 15.6 million people in America; the best-paying jobs employ 3 million.

Our numbers are drawn from the U.S. government's National, State and Metropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. The latest ones available use 2006 data and are based on a national survey of employers of every size and in all industry sectors. They examine 800 occupations.

The survey covers full- and part-time workers who are paid a wage or salary. It does not include the self-employed, owners and partners in unincorporated firms, household workers and unpaid family workers.

It asks about basic pay, incentive bonuses and commissions, but not overtime pay or non-wage compensation, such as stock options.

That helps explain why mean annual wages appear lower than one might have expected at the top end and higher at the bottom, where undocumented workers are unlikely to be counted accurately.

Remember, too, that these are mean salaries and that they give no indication of how distant the outliers at either end of the salary scale for any occupation might be. There are plenty of lawyers that earn a lot more than the average $113,660, and surely there are dishwashers who earn a lot less than $16,190.

The total compensation of the best-paid (salary and bonus excluding stock options) chief executive on our most recent CEO Compensation list, Bob R. Simpson of XTO Energy, was $32.2 million last year, 223 times as much as the average chief executive. And then there was Apple's Steven P. Jobs, who earned a nominal $1 salary -- but, thanks to stock options, earned $646.6 million last year.

Earnings can vary widely for the same job in different industries and in different places. Laundry and dry-cleaning workers employed by the federal government, for example, earn almost two-thirds more than the average for the occupation. Ditto cafeteria servers employed by state governments.

In certain occupations, the discrepancy occurs because they are niche jobs in generally high-paying industries. The handful of souls employed to cook for corporate dining rooms, who make $33,620 on average, earn 50% more than the 647,070 cooks working in full-service restaurants.

Where you live can also have a huge impact on what you make. The states and metropolitan areas in the high-wage Northeast pay top dollar in many occupations, as do employers in similarly pricey Silicon Valley.

Parking lot attendants and fast-food preparers and servers in the San Francisco/San Mateo/Redwood City metropolitan area earned, at $24,620 a year and $21,200 a year respectively, one-third more than the national average. Laundry and dry cleaning workers in Framingham, Mass., did even better relatively, earning, at $28,400, 50% more than the national average.

Remote states, particularly Alaska and Hawaii, also pay well for needed skills. On average, Hawaii pays best for busboys, bartenders and lifeguards; Alaska for short-order cooks, personal and home care aides and parking lot attendants. Oregon pays above average for podiatrists; Maine pays more for dentists.

There was little change in the occupations that make up the 25 best- and worst-paid lists. Astronomers fell off the bottom of the best-paying jobs list, to be replaced by financial managers. Service station attendants replaced some sorts of food preparers on the list of worst-paying jobs.

On average, earnings went up -- in the best-paid group by 4.2% and in the worst-paid by 3.2%. Yes, the doctors get richer.

Paul Maidment, Forbes