Image: Plastic surgeon
Amy Sancetta  /  AP file
According to government data, the mean annual salary for America's 55,390 surgeons is $181,850.
updated 5/24/2006 5:55:55 PM ET 2006-05-24T21:55:55

Why do financially pushy parents want their children to marry doctors? Because, as Willie Sutton said of banks, that is where the money is.

The medical profession dominates the top end of our list of the 25 best and worst paying jobs in America. Surgeons are No. 1, with the next seven spots taken by various sorts of specialist practitioners. Chief executives, at No. 9, and airline pilots, at No. 13, are the only two nonmedical occupations in the top 15.

At the other end of the scale are jobs in hotels, restaurants and leisure businesses. Lowest paid of all? Fast-food cooks, followed by bus boys, dishwashers and waiters.

According to government data, the mean annual salary for America's 55,390 surgeons is $181,850; for a fast-food cook, $15,230. The mean annual pay for all jobs is $37,440.

Our numbers are drawn from the government's National, State and Metropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. They, in turn, are based on a national survey of employers (the latest available one is from 2004) of every size and in all industry sectors. They cover 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 all helps explains 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 $110,590, and surely there are dishwashers who earn a lot less than $15,670.

Earnings can vary widely for the same job between different industries and in different places. Farm workers and nurserymen who work for the federal government, for example, earn almost twice the average for the occupation. Ditto laundry and dry-cleaning workers.

In certain occupations the discrepancy occurs because they are niche jobs in generally high-paying industries. The 150 souls employed to prepare food at law firms earn, at $29,020 on average, two-thirds as much as the 197,980 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.

Fast-food cooks in the Worcester, Mass., metro-area had an annual mean wage of $26,320, 73% more than the national average, and about the same as veterinarian technicians. Overall, Massachusetts is the most lucrative state for fast-food cooks, with an annual mean wage of $21,060. Fast-food cooks in neighboring Connecticut also earned more than $20,000 per year on average.

Remote states, particularly Alaska and Hawaii, also pay well for needed skills. On average, Hawaii pays best for waiters, bartenders and lifeguards. Dentists earn more on average in Alaska that in any other state, but there is a bigger premium for podiatrists in Kentucky.

As for America's 334,960 chief executives, New Jersey is the place to be. CEOs in the Garden State made $172,960 per year on average. But as our annual list of bosses' pay shows, there are plenty of chief executives that earn a lot more than that.

The 30 chief executives of securities and commodities exchanges are on average better paid than their peers at $189,950 per year. Run an architectural or engineering firm and you're likely to earn only $152,340 per year. Among the worst paid of all chief executives are those in local government ($81,780), but at 19,590, there are more of them than in any other industry.

© 2012


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