A new Business Insider/Survey Monkey Audience study identified the most overpaid and underpaid jobs as well as some interesting trends about how people’s opinions on the subject change when given more data.
In our primary version of the survey, we showed respondents the mean annual wage for each of the jobs, based on the Bureau of Labour Statistics’ May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, and then asked whether the jobs were very underpaid, somewhat underpaid, paid about right, somewhat overpaid, or very overpaid.
In our secondary version of the survey, we asked the same question, but without showing respondents the actual annual wages for each of the occupations. In this version, respondents based their answers on their pre-existing knowledge or beliefs about the salary levels for the jobs.
For many of the jobs, especially those on the higher and lower ends of the income scale, respondents who were not shown the actual mean wages were much more likely to answer that those jobs are overpaid and less likely to answer that they are underpaid than were respondents who were shown the wages. One possible explanation for this difference is that people may think these occupations pay more than they actually do.
For a lot of professional and skilled trades jobs in the middle of the income spectrum, however, there was not as much of a difference between the two surveys, and most respondents answered that these jobs were paid about right on both versions of the survey, indicating overall weaker feelings about these occupations’ pay levels.
Here is a breakdown of the differences and similarities between the two versions of the survey for some of these professions.
For example, here are the results from the two surveys for barbers and hairdressers, one of the jobs on the lower end of the income spectrum:
The horizontal axis shows the five survey options. The blue columns show the results of the first version of the survey in which respondents were not told the salaries, and the red columns show the results from the second version in which respondents were told the salaries.
On the version of the survey without the salary information, most (59%) respondents said that barbers and hairdressers were paid about right, with only about 29% of respondents saying that they were either somewhat or very underpaid.
However, on the version of the survey that included the salary information, the responses were flipped. A majority of 54% said that barbers were somewhat underpaid, 15% said that they were very underpaid, and only 30% said they were paid about right. In this version, nearly no respondents said that barbers and hairdressers were either somewhat or very overpaid.
A number of other low to medium wage jobs had a similar shift in opinion between the two surveys — respondents who were told the actual annual wages for the jobs were more likely to reply that those workers were underpaid. Bartenders went from a majority of respondents saying they were paid about right in the first version of the survey to a roughly even split between being seen as very underpaid, somewhat underpaid, and paid about right by respondents who were told their annual average wage of $US21,630:
In both versions of the survey, about half of respondents said that cooks were somewhat underpaid. However, in the version without salaries given, about a third of respondents said that cooks were paid about right, and about a tenth said they were very underpaid, while respondents who were told the salary information had these proportions reversed:
Similar kinds of reversals were seen for other lower- to medium-wage jobs like highway maintenance workers, auto mechanics, construction laborers, and building cleaning workers. While on both versions of the survey, most respondents said that people in these jobs were either underpaid or paid about right, with very few replying that they were overpaid, those surveyed were far more likely to say that these jobs were somewhat or very underpaid when given the actual annual wages.
There was a similar shift in opinion between the two versions of the survey for many jobs at the wealthier end of the income spectrum. Athletes are the most extreme example — in the survey without salaries given, over three quarters of respondents replied that athletes are very overpaid. However, the BLS finds that, on average, athletes make $US75,760 per year.
This result, which is lower than might be expected when considering the giant contracts given to MLB, NBA, and NFL superstars, likely comes from a combination of two factors. First, many athletes might be competing in less lucrative leagues or sports — a second line defenseman in the American Hockey League likely makes less money than Joe Flacco. Second, the BLS wage results are based on surveys, and so it is possible that those superstar contracts are not reflected in these summary data.
Respondents who were given this average salary were far more inclined to reply that athletes were paid about right:
A very similar, if slightly less extreme, pattern held for other occupations with relatively, but not insanely, high average annual salaries, in which a few astronomically high paid superstars dominate the public mindset — chief executives (average annual salary: $US176,840), lawyers ($130,880), and agents for entertainers and celebrities ($88,620) all saw the same kind of shift in opinion from majorities or near-majorities describing them as being very overpaid in the survey without the salary information, to a more modest distribution with a much higher proportion of respondents saying they were paid about right when told the average salaries.
The most dramatic shift in opinion between the two versions was for legislators. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate make $US174,000 per year, but the vast majority of legislators are working at the state and local levels for much lower levels of pay. According to the BLS, the average salary for a legislator is $US38,590.
Without this info, a majority of survey respondents said that legislators were very overpaid. Respondents who were given the average salary were far more sympathetic:
Only a handful of jobs saw a big shift in the opposite direction. For both pharmacists and postal service workers, at least a plurality of respondents on both surveys said that they were paid about right. However, in both cases, respondents who were given salary numbers were about twice as likely to say they were somewhat overpaid, and very much less likely to say they were somewhat or very underpaid:
The final group of occupations were those that saw little change between the two versions of the survey. First are a couple low-wage jobs that respondents on both surveys said were underpaid: waiters and waitresses, and fast food and counter workers:
There were also a number of professional or skilled trade jobs for which majorities of respondents on both surveys replied that these jobs were paid about right, with very little difference whether or not salaries were given. Architects are a representative example of this group:
The distributions for a wide range of jobs, including clergy, plumbers, aircraft pilots, accountants, reporters, and carpenters all look very similar to this chart. In general, it seems that people have very little to complain about the salaries of these kinds of solid middle class jobs.
There also was not much difference between the two versions of the survey for first responders. Overwhelming majorities on both versions responded that police officers and firefighters are either underpaid or paid about right, with little variation between the two surveys:
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