Though C-level executives are infamous for what many consider to be their excessive pay, it turns out those sporting scrubs and white coats in the operating room bring in bigger paychecks, on average, than those wearing suits and neckties in the corner office. That’s according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates survey.
In operating rooms across the country, anesthesiologists, the highest-paid workers in the U.S., earn an average of $112.96 an hour, for a mean annual salary of $234,950, according to the BLS. That’s about $15,000 more than they made last year — but anesthesiologists, like others in medical work, can pay well into six figures a year in medical malpractice premiums.
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The BLS survey reflects May 2011 salary and employment data gathered from nearly 1.2 million businesses. Nine of the nation’s 10 highest-paying occupations are in the medical field, including surgeon, general practitioner, orthodontist, and obstetrician and gynecologist.
At the other end of the wage spectrum, employees in the food service industry dominate. Six of the 10 lowest-paying jobs are food preparation and serving related occupations, while three are personal care and service occupations. The only low-paying job that isn’t in either of those two areas is farmworkers and laborers (No. 9).
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The lowest-paid workers, fast food cooks, earn $9 an hour, for an average annual salary of $18,720. More than a half million people in the U.S. hold this position, and another 2.8 million are in a food preparation and serving job, the second worst-paying occupation. Dishwashers and shampooers trail close behind, making a meager $18,840 and $19,130 a year, respectively.
Doctors’ salaries are so high not only because of supply and demand but also to offset the amounts they have to invest in education and malpractice insurance. The 33,310 anesthesiologists in the U.S. also work long shifts and play an integral role in keeping patients alive during surgery to earn their sizable salaries. According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA), the high pay reflects the responsibility and risk involved in their job.
The ASA defines anesthesiology as the practice of medicine dedicated to the relief of pain and total care of the surgical patient before, during and after surgery. In the operating room anesthesiologists are responsible for monitoring and controlling the patient’s heart rate and rhythm, breathing, blood pressure, body temperature and body fluid balance, as well as the patient’s pain and level of unconsciousness.
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Like other physicians, anesthesiologists accumulate hefty tuition bills as they’re required to complete a four-year undergraduate program, followed by four years of medical school, a one year internship and at least three years of a residency. They may further specialize in a subspecialty by completing one to two more years in a training program.
The ASA says that the number of anesthesiologists has more than doubled since the 1970s, while patient outcomes have improved significantly. Fifty years ago, deaths attributed to anesthesia were approximately 1 in 1,500. Today, the chance of a healthy patient suffering an intraoperative death attributable to anesthesia is less than 1 in 200,000.
“Anesthesiologists are highly satisfied with their important work in and outside of the operating room,” says an ASA spokesperson. “It is very rewarding for anesthesiologists to be able to bring patients in and out of surgery safely. They also find it rewarding to be able to care for patients throughout the entire surgical process. Anesthesiologists never leave patients’ side and are their lifeline before, during and after surgery.”
The second highest-paying job in America: general surgeon. These 42,340 high-earning medical professionals bring in $111.32 an hour, for an average annual salary of $231,550. That’s a salary increase of about $6,000 from the year prior.
Chief executives, the only non-doctors who crack the list of top-10 earners, earn an average of $176,550 per year. That figure pales in comparison with what some execs at very big companies take home. This year the highest paid chief executive in the U.S, McKesson’s John Hammergren, earned $131 million. The second-highest paid CEO, Ralph Lauren, took home $67 million in salary, bonus and stock. Chief executives hold the No. 9 spot for America’s highest earners.
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The gap between America’s highest- and lowest-paying jobs widens if you include perks and benefits. Health insurance, for example, often represents a third of an employee’s salary and isn’t offered for many low-paying jobs. The good news, however, is that workers at both ends of the spectrum made more last year, and across the U.S. the mean salary for all workers rose from $44,410 in 2010 to $45,230 in 2011.
The Best-Paying Jobs In America
No. 1 Best-Paying Job: Anesthesiologists
Average Annual Pay: $234,950
Employees in Field: 33,310
No. 2 Best-Paying Job: Surgeons
Average Annual Pay: $231,550
Employees in Field: 42,340
No. 3 Best-Paying Job: Obstetricians and Gynecologists
Average Annual Pay: $218,610
Employees in Field: 20,540
No. 4 Best-Paying Job: Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons
Average Annual Pay: $217,380
Employees in Field: 5,800
No. 5 Best-Paying Job: Orthodontists
Average Annual Pay: $204,670
Employees in Field: 5,040
The Worst-Paying Jobs In America
No. 1 Worst-Paying Job: Fast Food Cooks
Average Annual Pay: $18,720
Employees in Field: 502,450
No. 2 Worst-Paying Job: Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers, Including Fast Food
Average Annual Pay: $18,790
Employees in Field: 2,799,430
No. 3 Worst-Paying Job: Dishwashers
Average Annual Pay: $18,840
Employees in Field: 504,280
No. 4 Worst-Paying Job: Shampooers
Average Annual Pay: $19,130
Employees in Field: 13,240
No. 5 Worst-Paying Job: Counter Attendants, Cafeteria, Food Concession, and Coffee Shop
Average Annual Pay: $19,450
Employees in Field: 441,830
Click here to see the rest of The Best- and Worst-Paying Jobs In America.