The Most Underpaid Jobs in the United States

US News

Call it employee malaise, or some component of "The American Dream," but many workers in the United States feel they're not earning the salary they deserve. For some of them, that notion is personal and emotional, but not always logical.

Sometimes, though, the idea that a job is deserving of higher pay is practical and valid. School teachers are a commonly touted example of a group of underpaid workers whose responsibilities and societal impact don't compare with their average salary. Still, it's hard to quantify societal impact to come up with a list of jobs where workers are undercompensated. Instead, we selected a list of underpaid jobs based on societal need.

Our Best Jobs of 2012 list showcases occupations expected to hire abundantly up to the year 2020; jobs that were then ranked based on current employment rates, average salaries, and job satisfaction, as determined by the job review website Glassdoor.com. From that list, we've selected a group of "underpaid" jobs where the hiring demand is high (each of the professions listed here is expected to have at least 45,000 brand new openings between now and 2020), but the salaries are low. All the jobs on our list have an average median salary of less than $41,673.83, the national average wage index as calculated by the Social Security Administration.

[See the 10 Best Jobs of 2012.]

The jobs highlighted here also have one additional thing in common: They receive medium-high to very-high job satisfaction scores from those currently working in the profession. In essence, we're giving you a mix of occupations across a variety of industries where people like the work they're doing and where more workers are needed. There's only one thing missing: a comfortable salary that can make the work even more worthwhile.

Here's our list of the underpaid jobs in the United States:

Security Guard

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Average Salary: $23,900

No. of Openings: 195,000

Job Satisfaction: HIGH

Those who work in security frequently praise the occupation's flexible hours (lots of night and 12-hour shifts result in more days off) and recommend it for people who don't mind working alone. Still, it's a job that can be particularly stressful to the psyche as well as the body. Security guards must remain alert to protect against and prevent fire hazards, larceny, vandalism, and other emergency situations and illegal activity. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that security guards experience more on-the-job injury than the national average for all professions; gaming surveillance officers specifically have one of the highest injury rates. Too bad the pay is so paltry for those making security their full-time gig. In 2011, the average median salary for a security guard was just $23,900.

Sports Coach

Average Salary: $28,470

No. of Openings: 71,400

Job Satisfaction: HIGH

A sports coach trains either amateur or professional athletes for competition. But he or she also serves as an adviser, parent, teacher, and confidante for his or her team. The most-renowned in the profession--the Béla Károlyis, the John Maddens, and the Pat Rileys--have earned impressive salaries that came with adulation as well as endorsement deals. But most of the 242,900 professionals working in the field currently aren't coaching on that level, nor are they earning that type of pay. And the adulation they most mention to Glassdoor comes from the impressionable young people they coach on the secondary and collegiate level.

[See 8 Reasons You're Not Earning the Salary You Want.]

Medical Assistant

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Average Salary: $29,100

No. of Openings: 162,900

Job Satisfaction: MEDIUM

The approximately 530,000 medical assistants employed in doctors' offices and larger medical organizations must do a mix of traditional office operations work and hands-on medical tasks. They take patient histories, assist in patient examinations, change wound dressings, and help with sterilizing equipment. Often, they're the first and last people a patient sees when visiting a doctor's office, so medical assistants play a substantial part in the overall patient-care experience. In recent years, a medical assistant's people skills and practical skills have been complemented by technological skills, since most patient records are now digitized. The multifaceted nature of responsibilities hasn't resulted in substantially higher pay, however. In 2011, the BLS reported a median salary for medical assistants that's $12,573 less than the national average.

Medical assistants who reviewed their professions and workplaces with Glassdoor don't mention lower salaries. Instead, they highlight the joy of giving quality medical care. According to a medical assistant at Planned Parenthood in San Diego, one of the perks of the profession is that it "Allows you to serve a population in need."

Recreation and Fitness Worker

Average Salary: $31,030

No. of Openings: 124,700

Job Satisfaction: HIGH

"There is a lot of satisfaction in helping people," writes one fitness assistant department head to Glassdoor about working at Minnesota's Life Time Fitness club. Another recreation and fitness professional with Urban Active Fitness in Lexington, Ken., appreciates "The people you'll meet and relationships you'll start." So it's no surprise that as a whole, recreation and fitness occupations--aerobics instructors, camp counselors, and personal trainers--receive a boost on our Best Jobs list for their reported personal perks. The chance to be physically active and forgo a traditional 9-to-5 schedule also help boost these occupations' curb appeal. But fitness trainers earned an average $31,030 in 2011, according to the BLS. That's more than $10,000 less than the national average median wage.

Administrative Assistant

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Average Salary: $31,870

No. of Openings: 118,500

Job Satisfaction: HIGH

Today's administrative assistants have evolved beyond juggling phone messages and transcribing meeting minutes. They must now be thoroughly organized, have excellent writing and editing skills, and display a knack for multitasking. Often, admin professionals fulfill the roles of project managers, secret keepers, daily planners, customer service reps, and tech support. And despite wearing so many hats around the office, the more than two million employed administrative assistants were earning a salary that's well below the national average--$30,830 in 2010. In 2011, they earned about $31,870. Corporate culture and outstanding office benefits--but not compensation--were the key contributors to this occupation securing such lofty scores for job satisfaction.

[In Pictures: 7 Work Habits That Are Making You Sick.]

Real Estate Agent

Average Salary: $39,070

No. of Openings: 45,000

Job Satisfaction: HIGH

The mercurial economy hasn't made a real estate agent's profession an easy one. Still, the BLS predicts approximately 45,000 openings in this occupation between now and 2020, thanks to population growth. Agents have to stay abreast to the local zoning and tax laws of various communities, plus keep a pulse on the atmosphere in communities where they might do business. Keeping tabs on market conditions is another crucial element of their occupation. This is also a job that requires copious paperwork and patience, but it's not a job that comes with copious spending change. Though the profession's highest-paid earned around $92,000 in 2011, a real estate agent's average salary was less than $40,000 that year. Some tell Glassdoor that they find reward in helping people find homes. For others, they appreciate the chance to make their own flexible schedule.

Child, Family, and School Social Worker

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Average Salary: $40,680

No. of Openings: 58,200

Job Satisfaction: HIGH

The stakes are higher when a social worker has a bad day. The average, coddled office employee might become discouraged when the copier jams or the instant coffee machine goes on the fritz. But for a children, family, and school social worker, a "bad day" could entail reporting suspected child abuse, having a proposed adoption fall through, or witnessing a parent losing custody of their children. Despite the high stress, social workers report to Glassdoor that they like working with people, and get a thrill out of positively impacting the lives of others. Their tender hearts don't translate to loads of legal tender, though. The BLS reports that a social worker's median salary was $40,680 in 2011, just shy of the national average wage.



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