Brian K. Smith was astounded that surveys show Utah's top-paying occupation, at an average $191,180 a year, is working as an anesthesiologist. And he is one. "I was pretty sure some other (medical) specialties pay more. They do nationally," he said.
Jen Galloway labors at Utah's lowest-paying occupation — counter help at food concession stands or cafeterias — which pays an average $14,970 a year. "I'm not surprised it's the lowest," she said. "Most people who do this are between 16 and 18, and do it while they go to school because the schedules are very flexible."
Of course, Smith and fellow anesthesiologists had to attend four years of college, four years of medical school and four years of residency for their jobs at the top of the Utah pay scale. Galloway and her co-workers required just a few minutes or hours of on-the-job training, and no degree, to start at the bottom.
It helps show that education pays, at least usually. Any additional training or education tends to bring higher wages, according to a Deseret News analysis of most-recent-available state surveys (conducted in 2006) on pay for 612 different occupations, and the education required for them.
"When you look at everyone in total, the higher the education, the higher the earnings," said Lecia Langston, an economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, echoing counsel often given by parents and career advisers during high school graduation season.
But data also show that exceptions exist. Some jobs that require relatively little post-high school training actually pay more than do many that require college degrees or even advanced degrees. That may give hope to those who seek to upgrade employment without four or more years of college.
For example, some of the highest-paying Utah professions that do not require college degrees include: underground mining machine operators, $72,320; real estate brokers, $70,510; locomotive engineers, $68,020; and technical/scientific sales representatives, $66,840.
In comparison, the lowest-paying jobs requiring a bachelor's degree are: survey researchers, $18,860; recreation workers, $21,670; and preschool teachers, $25,170.
And compare those to some of the lowest-paying professions that require a doctorate or professional degree, including: professional clergy, $43,250; podiatrists, $58,550; and orthodontists, $63,070.
Life at the top
Smith says he is glad he went through the 12 years of post-high school education needed to become an anesthesiologist but adds, "Nobody does this for the money. ... We do it because we have the opportunity to make a meaningful difference."
Smith, president of the Utah Society of Anesthesiologists, notes that medical school costs are enormous, and many students go into debt up to $60,000 a year for it. "Many consider it similar to another mortgage," he said. Smith said that if people are looking just to make money, other options are probably smarter.
While in medical school and residency, Smith said he saw friends from his college days starting to make big money and get ahead while he was still living like a poor student. He said most anesthesiologists age into their 40s before they work off their debt and really start to get ahead.
"But the positives are that we have the opportunity to make meaningful differences in people's lives," he said, noting an example of how he had just provided help to an older man to deal with pain from an arthritic leg, allowing the man to do more.
"Also, those we work with are just some of the best people in the community. You also get to see and take part in things that are cutting-edge. For example, historically gall bladder surgery required two or three weeks for recovery. Now they use scopes, make small incisions, and people go home in a day. It's fun, good stuff."
Smith adds, "You do miss kids' ball games and concerts all the time. And there is stress. ... But you feel like you really make a difference."
Life at the bottom
Galloway, 31, has worked for years at several theater chains as a food concessions helper or in management. She said Utah's lowest-paying occupation can be fun but is glad that it is only a secondary income for her family. "I don't have to live on it. That would be hard."
She said, "Customers are usually happy to be here. They are with their family and hanging out. So they are happy to see you — but you have to be quick." But she adds that at the bottom of the wage scale, "Sometimes people are rude to you, or you are ignored."
She said that at the theater where she first worked, she was given only a few minutes of training. "You were pretty much thrown to the wolves. They put you on a till and said, 'Good luck."' At the Megaplex 12 at the Gateway where she now works, she said new workers are trained for four days, four hours a day.
"It's fun here. You see people from every walk of life. It's fun to talk to them. You also get to see free movies," she said. Because the Megaplex is owned by the Larry H. Miller companies, she said it "adds benefits, like car discounts" at its dealerships "and things like tickets to a Buzz game, with a barbecue for employees in the outfield."
Stay in school
The Deseret News analysis shows that every step of additional education or training usually brings higher wages. It could make a difference of hundreds of thousands of dollars during a person's working years.
For example, at the bottom rung of the pay ladder, those Utah jobs that require no degree and less than one month of on-the-job training have an annual average wage of $23,318.
With a step up to jobs that require one to 12 months of on-the-job training, pay rises to an average $31,706. Pay for jobs requiring more than a year of on-the-job training (but no degree) rises to $36,396.
Those jobs requiring post-high school vocational training average a higher $36,844 a year. Jobs requiring an associate degree rise to an average $42,351.
A bachelor's degree brings jobs that have average annual salaries of $58,601. An exception to the general rule of more education bringing more money is that wages for jobs requiring a master's degree in Utah are $58,004, a bit lower than for those requiring bachelor's degrees.
Finally, a big jump in average pay comes for those with doctorate or professional degrees: $109,431. (See chart for a listing of highest/lowest paying jobs for each category of training and education. A list of salaries for all 614 occupations measured in the state study is available by clicking the graphic link at the top of this story.)
Langston said it is especially important for women to stay in school. "Many of the higher-paying jobs that do not require much school are things that women traditionally don't do as much, such as underground mining or construction. So for them, there is a bigger jump in average pay the more education they get."
Langston said any extra experience or education tends to unlock higher pay. "Some people put in the time in school, and some put it in on the job. Either way, it usually takes training to move up," she said. "The more training and the more adaptable you are even after school, the better. Willingness to learn new things is key."
Working on up
Tony Rizzuto, a career and academic adviser at Salt Lake Community College, sees people of all ages returning to school to try to qualify for higher-paying jobs. He said it can often be done with fewer years of schooling than many may think.
"I see a lot of people who come back who are in the 30-something (age) bracket, those who can't make it anymore at the jobs they have," he said. "We also see a lot in the 50-something bracket. Maybe they were laid off or just want to do something different."
Rizzuto said college career counseling offices can help such people
and others by figuring out what skills they already have and how to upgrade them or add new ones to work into higher-paying jobs. He said about half of the programs at SLCC require two years or less but can lead to high pay.
"For example, nursing is a two-year program and is a $30-an-hour job," he said. But he adds that it is currently so popular that the waiting time to get into the programs at local colleges can be up to two years.
He said as people review lists of occupations for ideas, they sometimes see possibilities they never considered. "For example, our chef program has become popular" with people who like to cook but never considered it as a career.
He said many careers may be completely new, such as hologram technicians, so people have never considered them.
To help people explore new possibilities, Rizzuto has designed his own Web site called tonysgetajob.com. It has information ranging from which careers have the brightest outlook to personality tests, lists of new occupations, how to get financial aid and even how to convert degrees in one area to high-paying jobs in other fields.
For example, he discusses a page showing atypical possibilities for people with English degrees. "Most think you can just teach English with that, right?" he said. But the page shows how with some training or internships, it can be used for professions ranging from advertising to marketing, promotion, law, business management and more.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services issues regular predictions about which jobs will be most in demand in the future, and also which will pay the most. Those expected to have both the most openings and pay well for the training required are called "five-star jobs" in its rating system.
"The two occupations with the most future openings in Utah always tend to be cashiers and retail sales clerks. But they don't pay that much. Five-star jobs are the ones that pay well and have bright job outlook," said Langston, who has worked on job outlook reports.
She said good bets for plenty of openings and high wages tend to be "in technical or computer training, or in health care."
For example, the top five-star job that requires more than high school but less than a bachelor's degree is for registered nurses, who earn an average pay of $54,590 a year.
Some other five-star health occupations that also require less than a bachelor's degree include dental hygienists, $61,580 average; radiologic technologists, $44,740; and respiratory therapists, $30,710.
Some five-star technical occupations requiring less than a bachelor's include: electrical and electronic engineering technicians, $46,160 average; and civil engineering technicians, $37,350.
The state lists five-star jobs available at all different types of training levels.
Among the "best" listed for on-the-job-training (which can be long term) are: food service managers, $46,730 average; police patrol officers, $41,020 average; and supervisors of non-retail sales workers, $65,750.
Among the best five-star jobs requiring at least a bachelor's degree listed by the state are: marketing managers, $87,720 average; sales managers, $88,580; computer and information systems managers, $88,920; and financial managers, $82,280.
Where the jobs are
The state regularly predicts which occupations will have the most future openings. Unfortunately, most-recent predictions show some low-paying jobs are among those expected to have the most openings, such as in fast food or retail sales. (That and other data are available at jobs.Utah.gov).
Until 2014, the state expects 2,700 openings a year for retail sales workers; 1,900 a year for cashiers; 1,300 a year each for waiters/waitresses and fast-food workers; 1,200 for office clerks; and 1,100 each for registered nurses and janitors/cleaners.
The state also lists the highest-paying Utah occupations with at least 100 annual openings expected until 2014. Among them are general operations managers, 760 openings a year; computer software engineers, 330; lawyers, 250; chief executives, 210; mechanical engineers, 180; and pharmacists, 140.
Finally, the state also lists groups of occupations that have the most expected openings each year through 2014.
They include: office and administrative support, 9,500 a year; sales and related jobs, 8,300; food preparation and serving, 6,100; construction and extraction, 5,000; production, 4,800; transportation and material moving, 4,200; and education, training and library, 4,100.