Same occupation, different pay: How wages vary

| May 2015

Professional athletes make a lot of money, right? Well, some do.

The top-earning 10 percent of athletes and sports competitors made more than the $187,200 cutoff that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) used in estimating wages in May 2014. That includes the players who make news for signing multimillion-dollar contracts.

Football player running in a stadium

But the lowest earning 10 percent of athletes and sports competitors had annual wages of less than $20,190. That's quite a bit less than the $35,540 median for all occupations in May 2014—and nowhere near what top athletes earn.

This article focuses on occupations with big differences in high- and low-earning workers, because people exploring careers like to know whether wages vary drastically within the same occupation. The first section describes wages and why they vary. The second section presents occupations with more than a $100,000 difference between the top- and bottom-earning 10 percent of workers. The third section suggests resources for learning more.

A word about wages

The wages in this article are from the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey. This survey defines wages as straight-time, gross pay including some types of incentive pay, such as commissions, production bonuses, and tips. Premium pay, such as overtime pay or shift differentials, and certain other types of bonuses, such as profit-sharing payments, are not included. This survey also does not collect data on workers who are self-employed; their wages might differ from the wages listed here.

Large differences in wages may be the result of a combination of factors, such as industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill. To identify occupations with big wage differences, this article looks at percentile wages.

Percentiles and wage differences

Percentile wages show how workers' pay varies. As the illustration shows, the 10th percentile wage is the point at which 10 percent of workers in an occupation made less than that amount and 90 percent made more. The 90th percentile wage is the point at which 90 percent of workers in an occupation made less than that amount and 10 percent made more. The difference between those two wages—the high earners and low earners in an occupation—is referred to here as the "wage difference."

               Illustration.

Illustration showing 10th percentile, median, and 90th percentile wages for commercial pilots

The median wage is the point at which half of workers earned more than that amount and half earned less. In this article, the median wage is included in occupation descriptions. Yet median wages tell only part of the story of how much workers in an occupation actually earn.

Commercial pilots, for example, had a median annual wage of $75,620—more than double the median for all occupations in May 2014. But commercial pilots' wage difference, the gap between the 90th percentile wage and the 10th percentile wage, was more than $100,000. 

Reasons wages vary

Everyone brings unique skills and abilities to a job. And no two jobs are exactly alike. Variations affect pay for jobs within the same occupation. Often, the more pronounced these variations are, the bigger the wage difference.

In contrast, occupations with less variability among workers and jobs may have smaller wage differences. Fast food cooks, for example, have fairly consistent wages, and jobs in this occupation tend to involve similar tasks, industries of employment, and skill requirements.

Credentials. Workers who have advanced education or hold professional certification or licensure may earn more than other workers in the same occupation who don't have these credentials, especially when credentials are sought after by employers. 

Experience and skill. Often, the longer you do a job, the more productive you become. As a result, experienced workers usually earn more than beginners. Workers who have in-demand skills also may earn more. 

Industry or employer. Occupational wages vary by industry and employer. Diverse working conditions, clientele, and training requirements are among the reasons why wages might differ from one employment setting to the next. 

Job tasks. Jobs for a specific occupation often have similar position descriptions, but individual tasks may vary. And jobs involving more complex tasks or greater responsibility may have higher wages than those that don't, even within the same company. 

Geographic location. Some states or areas have higher wages than others for jobs in an occupation. Local demand for the work and cost of living are among the geographic factors affecting wages. 

Success and performance. Some occupations are extremely competitive, and a small number of workers who are successful in them often have very high earnings. Workers whose pay depends on their job performance also might have very high wages or very low wages.

Occupations with big wage differences

This section presents occupations that had a wage difference of more than $100,000 in May 2014, higher than the $71,710 wage difference for all workers. These occupations are grouped as follows:

Actress at a movie premier

Descriptions for each group include possible reasons for wage differences and illustrative examples. Median annual wages are used to point out industries or geographic locations that have high-or low-wages for workers in an occupation. Wage variations such as these often contribute to big differences in percentiles.

Arts, entertainment, and sports

Ability and success affect pay in many arts, entertainment, and sports occupations. (See table 1.) These occupations often require both skill and years of practice. In many of them, relatively few people make it big.

Actors, for example, had one of the biggest wage differences of any occupation in May 2014: more than $168,000 between the top-earning 10 percent and the bottom-earning 10 percent of workers. But there aren't many jobs for these workers overall, and few people achieve the success needed to become a top-paid actor.

Table 1. Arts, entertainment, and sports occupations with more than $100,000 wage difference, May 2014
Occupation Employment Median wage 10th percentile wage 90th percentile wage(1) Wage difference(2)

Actors(3)

59,210 $41,230 $18,720 >$187,200 >$168,480

Athletes and sports competitors

11,520 43,350 20,190 >187,200 >167,010

Producers and directors

97,300 69,100 31,380 >187,200 >155,820

Broadcast news analysts

4,310 61,450 28,210 182,470 154,260

Art directors

33,140 85,610 45,060 168,040 122,980

Film and video editors

24,460 57,210 25,520 145,620 120,100

Musicians and singers(3)

38,900 50,250 18,680 137,510 118,830

Footnotes:
(1) BLS does not publish specific estimates for percentile wages above $187,200 per year. Where the percentile wage is greater than $187,200, the wage is shown with a greater-than sign (>).
(2) Wage differences with a greater-than sign (>) were calculated using $187,200, the highest percentile wage that BLS publishes.
(3) In occupations in which workers typically are paid by the hour and work less than the standard 2,080 hours per year, BLS reports only hourly wages. For comparison purposes in calculating wage differences, the hourly wage was multiplied by 2,080 to get an annual wage.

Source: Occupational Employment Statistics survey, BLS

Among other factors that may affect wage differences in these occupations are hours worked, industry of employment, and job location. For example, many musicians and singers, like actors, do not work full time, year round, and so the wage difference for these workers may be even greater than the estimates in the table indicate.

In some arts, entertainment, and sports occupations, the more lucrative the industry that employs these workers, the higher their wages. For example, producers and directors in advertising, public relations, and related services had a median annual wage nearly twice that of producers and directors in theater companies and dinner theaters, $90,690 a year compared with $49,280.

And perhaps equally unsurprising, the median annual wage for art directors in New York, where the cost of living is relatively high and where jobs may be more prestigious than in other locations, was $114,070. In South Carolina, where the cost of living is much lower and there are fewer of these highly paid jobs, the median annual wage for art directors was $44,120.

Healthcare

Big wage differences in the healthcare occupations in table 2 might reflect workers' diverse credentials and levels of experience. Before qualifying for a license, some healthcare practitioners must complete a residency program, a period of on-the-job training that typically lasts from 1 to 8 years. During that time, pay is usually much lower than it would be for licensed, experienced workers.  

Veterinarian caring for a dog

 

Podiatrists, for example, must earn a Doctor of Podiatric Medicine degree and complete a 3-year residency program, after which they qualify for licensure. And once they are licensed, podiatrists' wages are likely to increase as they continue to gain experience. With a wage difference of more than $136,770, these workers had one of the biggest gaps in wages of any healthcare occupation. 

Table 2. Healthcare occupations with more than $100,000 wage difference, May 2014
Occupation Employment Median wage(1) 10th percentile wage 90th percentile wage(1) Wage difference(2)

Podiatrists

8,910 $120,700 $50,430 >$187,200 >$136,770

Optometrists

33,340 101,410 52,270 >187,200 >134,930

General internists

48,390 >187,200 60,880 >187,200 >126,320

Psychiatrists

25,080 181,880 61,600 >187,200 >125,600

General dentists

97,990 149,540 69,910 >187,200 >117,290

Prosthodontists

630 100,280 69,930 >187,200 >117,270

Family and general practitioners

124,810 180,180 72,190 >187,200 >115,010

Chiropractors

29,830 66,720 31,440 143,760 112,320

Orthodontists

6,190 >187,200 78,960 >187,200 >108,240

Veterinarians

62,470 87,590 52,530 157,390 104,860

Footnotes:
(1) BLS does not publish specific estimates for percentile wages above $187,200 per year. Where the percentile wage is greater than $187,200, the wage is shown with a greater-than sign (>).
(2) Wage differences with a greater-than sign (>) were calculated using $187,200, the highest percentile wage that BLS publishes.

Source: Occupational Employment Statistics survey, BLS

Number of clients, geographic location, and industry of employment are among the other factors influencing wages for these occupations. Chiropractors who have many clients, for example, are likely to earn more than those who have fewer clients.

As with many occupations, wages for healthcare workers vary by geographic location. For example, veterinarians in the Ventura, California, metropolitan area had a median annual wage of $171,670, more than 4 times the $40,420 median annual wage of veterinarians in and around College Station, Texas.

And in some healthcare occupations, industries that pose potential injuries to workers may pay more than ones that do not. For example, psychiatrists who worked in psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals had a median annual wage of $171,700, and psychiatrists who worked for insurance carriers had a median annual wage of $97,590.

Management

Managers with different job tasks and qualifications often are grouped together in the same occupation. This variation might be one of the reasons for the big wage differences in the occupations shown in table 3.

Advertising and promotions managers, for example, may have vastly different pay depending on the types of accounts they handle. A highly paid worker in this occupation might coordinate all of the advertising for a large, multinational corporation, and another worker might make much less overseeing the classified ads department of a local newspaper. As a result, the wage difference—more than $142,140—for this relatively small and competitive occupation was among the highest of any type of manager.

Table 3. Management occupations with more than $100,000 wage difference, May 2014
Occupation Employment Median wage 10th percentile wage 90th percentile wage(1) Wage difference(2)

Advertising and promotions managers

29,340 $96,720 $45,060 >$187,200 >$142,140

General and operations managers

2,049,870 97,270 45,130 >187,200 >142,070

Sales managers

358,920 110,660 53,620 >187,200 >133,580

Public relations and fundraising managers

56,920 101,510 55,420 >187,200 >131,780

Compensation and benefits managers

16,380 108,070 58,370 >187,200 >128,830

Financial managers

518,030 115,320 62,480 >187,200 >124,720

Postsecondary education administrators

131,070 88,390 50,240 174,000 123,760

Human resources managers

116,610 102,780 60,440 183,590 123,150

Marketing managers

184,490 127,130 65,980 >187,200 >121,220

Training and development managers

29,870 101,930 57,920 178,360 120,440

Natural sciences managers

53,290 120,050 70,020 >187,200 >117,180

Chief executives

246,240 173,320 72,750 >187,200 >114,450

Computer and information systems managers

330,360 127,640 78,470 >187,200 >108,730

Purchasing managers

70,840 106,090 60,840 169,000 108,160

Medical and health services managers

310,320 92,810 55,890 161,150 105,260

Architectural and engineering managers

179,320 130,620 83,580 >187,200 >103,620

Administrative services managers

268,730 83,790 45,590 149,180 103,590

Industrial production managers

167,200 92,470 56,290 158,170 101,880

Footnotes:
(1) BLS does not publish specific estimates for percentile wages above $187,200 per year. Where the percentile wage is greater than $187,200, the wage is shown with a greater-than sign (>).
(2) Wage differences with a greater-than sign (>) were calculated using $187,200, the highest percentile wage that BLS publishes.

Source: Occupational Employment Statistics survey, BLS

Additional factors, such as industry of employment, education level, and job performance might also contribute to differences in pay. Generally, the more technical an industry is, the better paid its managers are. For example, general and operations managers in research and development in the physical, engineering, and life sciences had median annual wages that were nearly 3 times those of workers in gasoline stations, $173,160 compared with $57,920 in May 2014.

Varying education levels also contribute to big wage differences for these workers. For example, some jobs that typically require a masters or doctoral degree at the entry level may be open to natural sciences managers who have advanced education. These jobs are likely to pay more than other jobs for natural sciences managers that require a bachelor's degree or less education.

And sales managers can boost their wages through bonuses or commissions made by meeting performance goals.

Sales, business, and financial

Many sales and financial workers are paid a commission, usually after selling a specific amount of goods or services. A commission may be earned in addition to or instead of a salary and can lead to big differences in pay among workers in the same occupation.

Real estate broker helping a couple buy a house

 

Real estate brokers, for example, earn most of their income from commissions on property sales—usually a percentage of those sales—so those who sell expensive properties or have higher sales volumes are likely to earn more than those who don't. And these workers had one of the biggest wage differences of any sales occupation in May 2014—$154,890. (See table 4.) 

Table 4. Sales, business, and financial occupations with more than $100,000 wage difference, May 2014
Occupation Employment Median wage 10th percentile wage 90th percentile wage(1) Wage difference(2)

Agents and business managers of artists, performers, and athletes

11,860 $64,200 $27,640 >$187,200 >$159,560

Securities, commodities, and financial services sales agents

316,340 72,070 32,170 >187,200 >155,030

Real estate brokers

38,720 57,360 23,880 178,770 154,890

Personal financial advisors

196,490 81,060 35,500 >187,200 >151,700

First-line supervisors of non-retail sales workers

248,770 71,600 36,130 148,430 112,300

Wholesale and manufacturing technical and scientific products sales representatives

335,540 75,140 37,430 149,010 111,580

Financial analysts

262,610 78,620 48,170 154,680 106,510

Sales engineers

68,080 96,340 55,850 160,250 104,400

Management analysts

587,450 80,880 45,360 148,110 102,750

Financial examiners

36,830 76,310 44,660 146,190 101,530

Footnotes:
(1) BLS does not publish specific estimates for percentile wages above $187,200 per year. Where the percentile wage is greater than $187,200, the wage is shown with a greater-than sign (>).
(2) Wage differences with a greater-than sign (>) were calculated using $187,200, the highest percentile wage that BLS publishes.

Source: Occupational Employment Statistics survey, BLS

Couple talking to financial advisor

In addition to performance-based pay, factors such as experience, industry of employment, and education level may also play a role in large wage differences for sales, business, and financial occupations. For example, management analysts who have several years of experience often command high pay as they take on additional responsibilities, such as overseeing teams of other analysts.

The clientele that an industry serves may also influence wage potential for workers in an occupation. Personal financial advisors in the securities, commodity contracts, and other financial investments and related activities industry—which often serves the financial needs of wealthy clients—had a median annual wage of $90,970. That was more than double the median wage of $37,710 for advisors working in individual and family services, whose clients were more likely to have low incomes.

And the diverse education levels of supervisors might lead to variations in their pay. For example, those who supervise wholesale and manufacturers' sales representatives of technical and scientific products may be more likely to have a bachelor's degree or higher-and may earn more-than those who supervise telemarketers.

Science, math, and engineering

Varying education levels is among the reasons for big wage differences in certain science, math, and engineering occupations.

Jobs requiring more advanced education are more likely to have higher pay. Some geoscientists, for example, have a bachelor's degree, and others have a master's or doctoral degree. But education alone may not be the reason geoscientists had one of the largest wage differences (more than $140,800) of the occupations in table 5: geoscientists who travel to remote locations or spend months out at sea, who often work long days or irregular schedules, may earn higher wages than others in the occupation.

Table 5. Science, math, and engineering occupations with more than $100,000 wage difference, May 2014
Occupation Employment Median wage 10th percentile wage 90th percentile wage(1) Wage difference(2)

Geoscientists, except hydrologists and geographers

34,000 $89,910 $46,400 >$187,200 >$140,800

Physicists

16,790 109,600 54,930 184,650 129,720

Actuaries

21,490 96,700 58,080 180,680 122,600

Economists

18,680 95,710 50,440 170,780 120,340

Petroleum engineers

33,740 130,050 73,990 >187,200 >113,210

Astronomers

1,660 105,410 52,160 162,630 110,470

Mining and geological engineers, including mining safety engineers

8,200 90,160 52,780 159,010 106,230

Medical scientists, except epidemiologists

100,740 79,930 43,150 148,210 105,060

Biochemists and biophysicists

31,350 84,940 44,220 149,130 104,910

Mathematicians

3,130 103,720 54,830 157,090 102,260

Political scientists

5,640 104,920 52,150 153,960 101,810

Footnotes:
(1) BLS does not publish specific estimates for percentile wages above $187,200 per year. Where the percentile wage is greater than $187,200, the wage is shown with a greater-than sign (>).
(2) Wage differences with a greater-than sign (>) were calculated using $187,200, the highest percentile wage that BLS publishes.

Source: Occupational Employment Statistics survey, BLS

Biochemist working in a lab

Credentials, experience, and industry of employment might influence wages as well. Actuaries, for example, must pass a series of exams over several years to become fully qualified. When they first start out, they usually work as trainees and have lower wages than experienced actuaries. Gradually, trainees receive higher salaries as they gain credentials.

Even highly educated workers in these occupations might make less if they are in entry-level positions. For example, biochemists and biophysicists who have a Ph.D. frequently start out in temporary postdoctoral research positions and may increase their earnings as they gain experience.

And in some occupations, wages vary by industry. Economists in banking, for example, had a median annual wage of $124,540 in May 2014. That was more than twice that of their counterparts in state-government-owned colleges, universities, and professional schools: $52,840.

Other occupations

Wages for occupations related to law, teaching, and air transportation vary widely due to a number of factors.

Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates had one of the biggest wage differences of the occupations shown in table 6—$147,440. Job tasks for these workers vary by levels of authority, from handling simple infractions or disputes to presiding over complex legal cases on appeal, which may contribute to wage differences.

Table 6. Other occupations with more than $100,000 wage difference, May 2014
Occupation Employment Median wage 10th percentile wage 90th percentile wage(1) Wage difference(2)

Judges, magistrate judges, and magistrates

28,090 $115,140 $31,480 $178,920 $147,440

Lawyers

603,310 114,970 55,400 >187,200 >131,800

Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers

75,760 118,140 64,780 >187,200 >122,420

Administrative law judges, adjudicators, and hearing officers

14,140 87,980 41,510 156,750 115,240

Postsecondary teachers

1,522,210 63,010 28,950 138,720 109,770

Commercial pilots

38,170 75,620 35,250 141,210 105,960

Air traffic controllers

22,860 122,340 67,070 172,000 104,930

Footnotes:
(1) BLS does not publish specific estimates for percentile wages above $187,200 per year. Where the percentile wage is greater than $187,200, the wage is shown with a greater-than sign (>).
(2) Wage differences with a greater-than sign (>) were calculated using $187,200, the highest percentile wage that BLS publishes.

Source: Occupational Employment Statistics survey, BLS

Additional factors affecting wages for the occupations in the table include worker qualifications, industry of employment, and job location. To qualify for higher paying jobs, for example, airline and commercial pilots usually need more experience and credentials than lower paying jobs require.

Within educational services, the public sector pays more than the private sector for some teaching jobs. Postsecondary computer science teachers in state-government-owned colleges, universities, and professional schools, for example, had a median annual wage of $87,960, while those in privately owned business schools and computer and management training had a median annual wage of $51,810.

Geography often matters for some workers in this "other occupations" category. For example, lawyers in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area had a median annual wage of $154,160. By comparison, lawyers in the Western Montana nonmetropolitan area had a median annual wage of $37,530.

Exploring more

OES profiles have lots of information about employment and wages—including percentile, industry, and geographic wage data—for hundreds of occupations.

Other OES publications can help you understand percentile wages and some of the factors that might affect wages in an occupation.

Learn more about the occupations in this article and about many others in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, which describes occupations' job tasks, work environment, education and training, pay, outlook, and more.

America's Career InfoNet also has a tool for finding OES wage data by occupation and local area.

Check with your state labor market information office for additional data specific to where you live.

This article explores differences in pay based on many reasons—but does not include wage discrimination based on factors such as race, sex, or disability. For answers to questions about those topics, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Why a cutoff of $187,200?

The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program receives wage-rate data for the federal government, the U.S. Postal Service, and some state governments. For other industries, OES survey respondents are asked to report the number of employees paid within 12 wage intervals. Because the highest wage interval is open-ended, it is not always possible to produce median wage estimates for some high-paying occupations. If a median (or other percentile wage) for an occupation falls into the open interval, OES can determine only that the percentile falls at or above the lower bound of the open interval but cannot assign a specific value to that percentile. When this happens, the percentile wage estimate is noted as equal to or exceeding the lower bound of the open interval. Currently, this note is assigned to percentile wages above $90 per hour or $187,200 per year.

Elka Torpey is an economist in the Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections, BLS. She can be reached at torpey.elka@bls.gov.

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