RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Asking people how much money they make is a bit of a taboo in this country. That may be one reason why Americans aren't always clear on what certain jobs pay. Salary.com, a wage data firm, wants to change that, and in a recent survey, the firm found that some of the jobs people think are cool, don't pay very well. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
When salary.com asked more than 800 internet users to name jobs they considered glamorous, the top results included architect, interior decorator, and fashion designer. Those jobs may be creative. They may be interesting. But they don't pay a median salary of more than $50,000. Salary.com's Bill Coleman explains.
Mr. BILL COLEMAN (Senior Vice President, Salary.com): People often think that the jobs they read about in People Magazine are the jobs they want and that those people get paid a lot. And there's just a general misconception about the glamour factor of a job and its pay.
LANGFITT: Some jobs pay less because lots of people want them. Coleman cites reporters, who make about $46,000 a year. He calls this ‘the glamour discount'. Some jobs seem more lucrative because of how they're portrayed in the media. Coleman says focusing on a few people at the top of a profession can create the false impression that a field pays well across the board. Take fashion design, where big names make millions. But the median salary is just over $40,000 a year.
Mr. COLEMAN: Everybody thinks of, you know, catwalks and fancy clothes and fancy parties, and they probably don't really think of, you know, late nights, sweatshops, and stressing out over coming out with a new design, having designs flop.
LANGFITT: At the other end of the spectrum, are jobs that may seem like drudgery but pay well. Consider the indispensable tax attorney. Most people can't analyze tax code; that's one reason why tax attorneys make about $100,000 annually.
Mr. COLEMAN: These are somebody's got to do it jobs. But it has a lot of value to anybody who needs that skill, and, you know, if you've ever seen the Internal Revenue Code, you realize that it requires an awful lot to master that.
LANGFITT: Other people with little cache, but little cash, include podiatrists, foot specialists, who earn $123,000 a year. And then there are optometrists, who make $88,000. Gritty, lower skilled jobs usually don't pay well, but there are exceptions. As a Professor at the University of Kentucky in the early 1980's, Dan Black could've made a lot more money working underground.
Professor DAN BLACK (Professor of Economics, Syracuse University): When I started, I can, of course remember this because you always remember your first job offer, I made $26,000. The typical coal miner actually made over $40,000 that year. Black is now a labor economist at Syracuse University.
LANGFITT: Black is now a labor economist at Syracuse University. He says employers occasionally have to pay extra to get people to take more dangerous jobs.
Mr. BLACK: If you are a coal miner working underground, a lot of people would find that sort of work environment quite unpleasant. And as a result, employers are going to have to pay a, what economists refer to as a compensating differential, to get people to take the risk associated with coal mining. But also, you know, working in the conditions that coal miners have to work in.
LANGFITT: Today that differential is in work overseas, in an even more dangerous environment: Iraq. Private security guards, not a glamorous job, typically earn from $400 to $600 dollars a day.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You can take a What Do People Earn Quiz? By going to a link at our website npr.org.
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