What do people in America do for a living?
What is a “normal” job, statistically?
What are the best-paying jobs?
Most of us don’t know, even though these are incredibly relevant facts for career choice, education, and having some idea of what kind of country you live in. And even though all the statistics are available free to the public from the Bureau of Labor Statistics!
What Jobs Pay Best?
Doctors. Definitely doctors. The top ten highest mean annual wage occupations are all medical specialties. Anesthesiologists top the list, with an average salary of $235,070.
Obviously doctors are not the richest people in the US. The Forbes 400 consists largely of executives. But “chief executive” as a profession actually ranks behind “psychiatrist.” The average CEO makes $178,400 a year.
Dentists, nurse anaesthetists, and petroleum engineers make over $150,000 a year. Managers of all sorts, as well as lawyers, range in the $120,000-$140,000s.
Air traffic controllers make about as much as physicists, at $118,000 a year.
Yep, you got that right: the average air traffic controller is slightly richer than the average physicist.
Physicists are the richest pure-science specialty, followed by astronomers and computer scientists ($110,000) and mathematicians ($103,000). Actuaries, software engineers, computer hardware engineers, and nuclear, aerospace, and chemical engineers, cluster around the $100,000-110,000 range.
Bottom line: if you want a high-EV profession, be a doctor. Or a dentist — the pay is almost as good. The “professions” — medicine, law, engineering — are, in fact, high-paying, and sort by income in that order. It is, obviously, good to be a manager; but still not as good as being a doctor. Going into the hard sciences is, as far as income goes, basically the same as going into engineering. It’s the bottom of the 6-figure range. There are a few underappreciated jobs, like air traffic controllers, pilots, anaesthetists, pharmacists, actuaries, and optometrists, which aren’t generally given as much social status as doctors and lawyers, but pay comparably.
What Jobs Pay Worst?
Flipping burgers. It’s not just a punchline: fast food cooks are the lowest-paid occupation, at $18,870 a year.
For comparison purposes, the federal poverty line for a single person is given at $11,670, and for a family of four at $23,850. So a burger-flipper is only technically living in poverty if she supports at least two dependents. 15% of Americans live below the poverty line. Since a fair number (19%) of people living alone are poor, this suggests that unemployment or underemployment is a bigger factor in poverty than low wages.
We have a lot of low-paid fast-food cooks and servers. Three million Americans work in fast-food preparation and service.
The lowest of the low-paid jobs, making under $30,000 a year, are service workers. Cooks, cashiers, desk clerks, maids, bartenders, parking lot attendants, manicurists. When somebody waits on you in a commercial establishment, you’re looking at one of the poorest people who have jobs at all.
The other kind of ultra-low-paid jobs are laborers. Agricultural workers, graders and sorters, cleaners of vehicles and equipment, meat cutters and trimmers and meatpackers, building cleaning and pest control workers. Groundskeeping workers. Not, it’s important to note, people who work in manufacturing and repair; most of those jobs are in the $30,000-$40,000 range.
As you get to the top of the <$30,000 range, you begin to see office workers. Office clerks (and there are two million of them!) get paid about $29,000 a year. Data entry. File clerks. Despite living in the age of computers, we still have lots of people whose jobs are low-level paperwork. And they’re very poorly paid.
This is the depressing side of the income scale. Where are all the poor people? They’re in customer service, unskilled labor, or low-level office work.
Who is the Middle Class?
The median US household income is $51,000. The average household is 2.55 people. The median US salary is $48,872. (This seems to imply that most wage earners support at least one dependent.) So let’s look at jobs that pay around the median.
Firefighters, at $48,270. Social workers, at $48,370, as well as librarians, at $47,750, counselors, at $47,820, teachers, at $54,740, and clergy, at $47,540. Fine artists, at $50,900, and graphic designers, at $49,610. Things like “mine cutting and channeling machine operators”, “aircraft cargo handling supervisors”, “tool and die makers”, “civil engineering technicians”, “derrick operators, oil and gas”, “explosive workers, ordnance handling experts, and blasters”, “railroad brake, signal, and switch operators”, and so on, get paid in the $48,000-51,000 range. Basically, jobs that involve the skilled use of machinery, the actual making and operating of an industrial civilization.
Who is the middle class? “Teachers and firemen” isn’t far off, as stereotypes go. It’s mostly unionized jobs, either in the “helping professions” or in manufacturing/industry.
How do you get a job like that? For example, CNC programmers are pretty evenly split between people with associates’ degrees (36%), people with post-secondary certificates (31%), and people with college degrees (15%). You need to pass a licensing exam and spend several years as an apprentice. Mining machine operators, on the other hand, mostly don’t even need a high school diploma. Tool and die makers need a post-secondary certificate but generally not a college degree. By contrast, you usually need a masters’ to be a counselor, for comparable pay.
Where do most people work?
Of the broad sectors defined by the BLS, the most common is “office and administrative support occupations.”
Who are these? Things like “data entry keyers”, “human resources assistants”, “shipping clerks”, “payroll and timekeeping clerks”, and so on. They make an average salary of $34,900, and they are mostly employed by government, banks, hospitals and medical practices. A full 16% of employed Americans work in this sector.
The second most common sector is “sales and related occupations.”
Who are these? Everything from counter clerks to real estate brokers to sales engineers, but not management of sales departments. The mean annual wage is $38,200 — most people in “sales” are clerks in stores (grocery stores, department stores, clothing stores, etc.) 14 million people work in sales altogether, around 11% of employed Americans.
The next most common sector is “food preparation and services”, at 8% of employed Americans. The mean wage is $21,580.
By single occupation, the most common occupations in America are “retail sales workers”, “food and beverage serving workers”, and “information and record clerks.” We are, more than anything else, a nation of shitty retail jobs.
We have a lot of school teachers (4 million), a lot of people working in construction (3.7 million), a lot of nurses (2.7 million) and health technicians (2.8 million). But the most common occupations are very heavily weighted towards retail, service, unskilled labor, and low-level office work.
What about the arts and sciences?
Shockingly, there are only 3030 mathematicians. Maybe a lot of them are calling themselves something else, like the 89,740 “post-secondary math and computer teachers”, though that’s hardly how I’d describe my professors. There are 24,950 statisticians, 24,380 computer scientists, 17,340 physicists, and 87,560 chemists.
By contrast, there are 1.4 million software developers and programmers. In my little bubble, it feels like almost all the smart people wind up as software engineers; by the numbers, it looks like this is more or less true. All non-software engineers combined only make up 1.5 million jobs. I hear a lot of rhetoric about “Silicon Valley only does software, real atom-pushing engineering technology is lagging” — I don’t have a basis for evaluating the truth of that, but we definitely have a lot of people employed in software compared to the rest of engineering.
There are 87,240 artists, more than half of whom are animators and art directors; there are 420,130 designers; there are 63,230 actors, 39,260 musicians and singers, 11,540 dancers, and 43,590 writers. Writers don’t actually do so badly: average wage is $69,250. For all the hand-wringing about the end of writing as a profession, it’s still a real job.
There are a ton of doctors (623,380) and almost as many therapists (600,650). Therapists here refers to physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and so on, not psychological counselors. There are far more people lower on the totem pole: 2.8 million medical technicians, 2.7 million registered nurses, and 3.9 million “healthcare support occupations” (nurses’ aides, orderlies, etc. These fall into the lowest-paid category, average yearly income $28,300.)
There are 592,670 lawyers, and 27,190 judges.
Basically, when it comes to the arts and professions, doctors and lawyers are the most common as well as the best-paid, followed by engineers and programmers, and then scientists and artists.
What does the BLS tell you about what you should do for a living?
Of course, it depends on who you are and what resources are available to you. But here’s a few things that popped out to me.
1.) The most reliable way to make a high salary is to be a doctor. There is absolutely no ambiguity on that point.
2.) Programming/engineering/hard science and management are the skills involved in most of the top-paid jobs.
3.) The best-paid job that doesn’t require a college degree is airline pilot. If you’re broke or you hate school, consider learning to fly.
4.) Writers and visual artists are not that poor, so long as they’re willing to work on commercial projects.
EDIT: Michael Vassar has questioned the numbers of doctors and lawyers. It turns out the BLS numbers may be slight underestimates but aren’t too far off from other sources.
The Kaiser Foundation says there are 834,769 “professionally active physicians” in the US, as of 2012. The Federation of State Medical Boards is giving the number 878,194 for licensed physicians as of 2012. We have roughly one physician for every 400 people, according to the World Bank.
The ABA gives 1,225,452 licensed lawyers. Harvard Law School says the BLS numbers are lower because there are more people licensed to practice law than currently employed as attorneys.
All in all, I’m fairly confident that the number of “professionals” (doctors, lawyers, and engineers, including software engineers) is around 5 million, and likely not more than 10 million. It’s two or three percent of the population.