The Best and Worst Paying Jobs

Coming in at No. 17 for best-paying jobs: air-traffic controllers, with an average salary of $110,270 per year.
Lester Lefkowitz/Getty Images

If you believe the stereotype that doctors and lawyers make all the money, you're almost right.

According to the latest studies conducted by the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical professionals in the U.S. do indeed boast the highest average salary in the work force. In fact, there is only one occupation in the top 10 best-paid jobs that isn't a medical position.


Surprise: it isn't lawyers.

And, unfortunately, it isn't food service workers, who are among the worst-paid workers in the United States. Joining them are other service industry workers, including hotel housekeeping employees, restaurant hosts and hostesses and laundry service workers.

The good news for service industry workers is that where they work and for whom play large roles in how much they can earn. For example, a cafeteria worker at a successful software company will, on average, make more than a cafeteria worker at a high school.

The other good news for those with the worst-paid jobs is that certain regions of the United States pay more than others. For example, a maid at a nice hotel in Silicon Valley or New England will make, on average, more than a maid at a nice hotel in the Midwest.

The statistics gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are based on basic wages. The statistics don't take overtime pay or nonwage compensation into account, and the occupations surveyed don't include self-employed workers.

And, of course, being statistics, the results do not reflect extremes in either direction, such as the worst-paid fast food employee in the lowest-paying restaurant, or the chief executive officer of a mega-corporation earning top dollar.

So what is the best paying job out there? Read on.



Best-paying Jobs

Anesthesiologist Rondall Lane (left) sedates a man before an operation in 2005.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Statistics would tell you that it's a good time to be a medical professional -- the top-nine best-paid jobs fall into medical fields. But who's No. 1?

They're the men and women who numb us, sedate us and put us under during unpleasant procedures involving the opening, internal repairing and sealing of our bodies. They are anesthesiologists. So what do they do that earns them so much green?


Although not considered a distinct profession until the 1930s, anesthetists have been around since the 1800s. Anesthetic technology has expanded from general anesthesia, which passes through the entire body to lower the patient into unconsciousness, to local and regional anesthetics. Local anesthetics target very specific areas, such as your gums for dental surgery or the area around a cut that needs stitching. Regional anesthesia targets an area of the body, like your leg or arm. Sedation, which consists of relaxing the patient until she is on the edge of or cradled in the hands of sleep, also falls in the jurisdiction of the anesthesiologist.

Before a surgical procedure, an anesthesiologist will conduct an interview with the patient. In addition to asking about your general health, the medications you're taking, any allergies you might have, and whether you drink or smoke, the anesthesiologist will inquire whether you or any members of your family have had bad reactions to anesthesia in the past. This interview helps the anesthesiologist to choose the anesthesia that's right for your physiology.

During surgery, the anesthesiologist keeps a close eye on your vital signs, including your breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. The anesthesiologist's vigilance during surgery is important, because strong anesthesia greatly reduces or eliminates your body's ability to operate vital systems. This is why you always see a breathing tube in a patient's mouth during major surgery on television. After surgery, your anesthesiologist will continue to keep an eye on you as you recover in the hospital.

Anesthesiologists' comfortable salary, a national average of $184,340 in the United States, allows them to pay off the massive bills they incurred while attending undergraduate college and medical school, not to mention their internship and three-year residency. And, considering that anesthesiologists keep us alive and prevent us from feeling those nasty, sharp surgical tools, their salary seems justified.

What about the worst-paying jobs today? Check them out on the next page.



Worst-paying Jobs

As fast food has spread across the world, so have fast-food jobs. This worker (in Chengdu, China, in 2006) makes even less than his American counterparts -- only about $1 per hour [source: BBC].
Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images

Just as the top-paying jobs are dominated by a single industry -- medicine -- many of the worst paying jobs fall into the food service industry. And, yes, fast food is at the top of the worst-paying list.

The top two worst-paid jobs in the United States are the fast-food cook and the fast-food preparer-server, the latter of which pulls double duty to prepare food behind the counter and serve it to customers at the counter.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines chefs and cooks as food workers who "mix, and cook ingredients according to recipes, using a variety of equipment, including pots, pans, cutlery, ovens, broilers, grills, slicers, grinders, and blenders" [source: BLS].

Fast-food preparers-servers, who have the dubious distinction of being the worst-paid workers in the United States, generally do not have the pleasure of working with ingredients or any equipment beyond heating and drink-dispensing machinery. In fact, in many fast food restaurants, there's very little actual cooking going on.

Take the hamburger, the ultimate symbol of the fast food world. Burgers are mass-produced and frozen in factories far, far away from the restaurants where they will eventually be consumed. After distribution companies ship the burgers to the restaurants, food preparers-servers thaw the frozen burgers and reheat them on grills or in other heating machinery. Once heated, the burgers are wrapped up and slid beneath a heat lamp or in a depository designed to keep the food warm. Food preparers-servers take your order at the counter or over a pair of drive-through headphones. They take your money, give you your change, then stuff a paper bag with your burger and a box of fries, which were deep-fried elsewhere in the fast food assembly line process. Meanwhile, a soda dispenser was automatically pouring you a cola. The server hands you your bag of food and accompanying beverage. One more customer served.

As of 2006, there were 2,503,000 fast-food preparers-servers in the United States [source: BLS]. The job's minimal requirements in education and experience make it extremely popular among teenagers looking to make their first bucks in the real world. But, partially because of the low pay -- the worst in the country -- the turnover rate is quite high. There will always be food preparation-serving positions available. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 2,955,000 of these workers by 2016 [source: BLS].

If you'd like to know more about the best and worst paying jobs, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Anesthesiology." Encyclopedia Britannica. (Accessed 4/3/08)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Chefs, Cooks, and Food Preparation Workers." (Accessed 4/16/08)
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Food and Beverage Serving and Related Workers." (Accessed 4/16/08
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Occupational Employment Statistics." (Accessed 4/1/08)
  • Heitmiller MD, Eugenie. "How Anesthesia Works." (Accessed 4/16/08)
  • Heitmiller MD, Eugenie. "How Anesthesia Works." (Accessed 4/16/08)
  • Maidment, Paul. "America's Best and Worst Paying Jobs." Forbes Magazine. 6/4/2007. (Accessed 4/1/08)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Anesthesia: A look at local, regional and general anesthesia." 6/16/2006. (Accessed 4/16/08)
  • Wilson, Tracy V. "How Fast Food Works." (Accessed 4/16/08)
  • Wilson, Tracy V. "How Fast Food Works." (Accessed 4/16/08)