Through much of the recession, individuals working in public service jobs have enjoyed greater job security than many employees in the private sector. Given some of the recent information coming out of Wisconsin and California, it's no wonder that some people are questioning how and why some public service workers are being paid such hefty wages for jobs that would pay much less in the private sector - some positions which may even require relatively little skill. Considering that the national average salary is around $41,000 per year, some public service jobs pay far more than that and typically come with good benefits, regular pay increases and job security. (Focusing on salary may be a mistake. Find out which benefits have the highest long-run payoff. Refer to Job Hunting: Higher Pay Vs. Better Benefits.)
TUTORIAL: All About Inflation
Public Transit Attendant
In larger cities with significant subway systems, those conductors and attendants working on the platforms are almost definitely earning a wage that exceeds the national average. The average annual salary for a subway conductor or engineer is about $62,000 per year. That's a pretty impressive wage at roughly 51% more than the national average. Though no one would deny the value of keeping the city moving, one has to consider that many public transit attendants are probably earning more than many of the individuals they're transporting to and from work each day.
Prison Medical Staff
There are several instances of doctors, psychiatrists and dentists in prisons earning outrageous salaries. One surgeon in a California prison is reported to have earned $775,000, while another doctor in a California prison apparently earned $784,596 including bonuses, overtime and other forms of compensation. One of California's prison psychologists is reported to have earned $737,057. Another of California's prisons paid a dentist $621,971, again covering unused benefits that the employee had accrued over time.
Teachers require post-secondary education, and there is no doubt that this is a valued profession. However, teachers in California are the highest paid in the nation. According to Payscale.com, the average elementary school teacher earns approximately $40,058 per year, and the average high school teacher earns $43,368 per year. These figures fit right in with the national average yearly salary. However, in the state of California, the average teacher earns $59,825 annually. That is roughly 38% more per year than the average high school teacher is earning in much of the rest of the country, and about 46% more than the national average annual salary - these figures certainly make teaching a more appealing career choice, especially in the state of California.
Toll-booth attendants are reported to earn an average annual salary of $45,000 per year. This salary exceeds the national average, which is notable considering that this job is relatively low-skilled and requires no post-secondary education. It is also reported that the highest paid toll-booth operator salary in Maine in 2009 was $76,219, which is an impressive 85% more than the national average annual salary.
Though this job certainly does require a lot of training, experience and exposure to the obvious dangers associated with fire-fighting, once you work your way up through the ranks to fire chief, you'd be looking at a fairly hefty salary. The median annual salary for fire chiefs is between $73,435 and $95,271 per year, with a benefits package in addition to that.
It's unlikely that kids grow up dreaming of becoming trash collectors, but the average annual salary certainly may change some adults' feelings toward this not-so-glamorous career option. Salaries in this job vary greatly depending upon region, though New York City trash collectors are reported to receive the hefty salaries of $67,000 per year, not including overtime. Of course, many regions in the United States are not paying this kind of salary to their garbage collectors, though the national average salary still sits at around $43,000 per year, which can increase to about $60,000 per year after you factor in overtime, bonuses and benefits. This is certainly a high-paying job considering that it requires little skill or training, though it certainly does have its share of drawbacks in the form of long hours, early start times and unpleasant working conditions.
In a time when budget cuts impact the ability for educational institutions to operate, and tuition hikes impact the ability of students to obtain post-secondary education, it appears that being the chancellor of a big university has never been better. One university chancellor in Texas is reported to have earned $813,892 in 2009, while another chancellor in New York earned $560,038. Even if you consider these figures to be out of the ordinary, the national average salary for university chancellors is reported to be around $244,000 a year, plus bonuses and benefits. (The pay may not be as competitive as Wall Street, but the work environment, opportunity and knowing your helping out an educational facility is worth it. Check out A Career In Endowment Management.)
The Bottom Line
Overtime, benefits and job security all count for something when it comes to an overall compensation package. Keep in mind that not all public service jobs are overpaid, in fact, some public service jobs actually pay less than in private industry - public defenders for example. And one of the main reasons that public service workers can end up earning so much is that they get regular salary increases with the number of years of service they put in, and many have unions to represent them in collective bargaining. Some public service jobs also give employees the opportunity to increase their salaries by taking payment in exchange for unused benefits - which has certainly led to the large number of outrageous salaries in the state of California. That being said, taxpayers definitely have a right to know where their tax dollars are going and should question how their governments spend money.