The Lowest-Paid Occupations: Data from 2017

Adam Rust

Lately, reports on job creation suggest that Americans are finding it easier to find work, but behind that outcome lies another disturbing truth: Most of the gains in employment have come in low-paid fields. These jobs have two problems: these positions pay little and they offer limited prospects for wage increases.

Common jobs with very low wages

As a group, fast food workers were the lowest paid workers in the United States in 2017. They had an average hourly wage of only $10.28.  According to the BLS, slightly more than 4 million people hold jobs in fast food. Fast food restaurants do not hire dishwashers or front-of-house hosts.  

Back-of-house food service – aggregate average wages of $11.85 per hour. “Cold-line” food preparers earned an average hourly wage of $10.21 in 2017. Dishwashers received an average hourly wage of $10.68. As might be expected, the cooks earned the most out of everyone in the kitchen ($12.23).

More than 500,000 people make a living washing dishes, 830,000 work the cold-line and another 2.38 million cook food.  All in, restaurants employ more than 10 million employees.  

Front-of-house foodservice – aggregate average wages of $11.94 per hour.  Hostesses ($10.72) and baristas ($10.83) receive almost the same amount, and busboys ($11.08) earn more than either.  Waiters make a bit more ($11.09), but no one does as well as the bartenders ($12.83). 

Cashiers: Average hourly wage of $10.65. The BLS says that 3.6 million people work as cashiers.

Childcare workers: More than half a million people work in childcare. They earn, on average, $11.42 per hour. Personal care aides are more likely to serve older people. They received an average wage of $11.59 per hour. There are more than two million personal care aides in the US labor force.

Fields with the lowest difference in wages among highest-paid to lowest-paid workers (more than 100,000 positions)

1.       Dishwashers

2.       Fast Food Workers

3.       Personal Care Aids

4.       Cashiers

5.       Garment workers

6.       Hosts and Hostesses

7.       Parking Lot Attendants

8.       Dining room and cafeteria attendants

9.       Agriculture workers

10.     Ushers and ticket takers

Picture of card
waiter and restaurant manager working

Some Observations

While most of the people working in restaurants will never see significant increases in their pay, managers are the exception. The bottom decile of food service managers receives an average annual of $38,000 per year. However, a manager in the 90th percentile earns almost three times that amount. The next closest are bakers (2.1x) and cooks (1.96x). By contrast, a bottom-of-the-rung dishwasher brings home $22,000 whereas a person at the top of the field makes approximately $28,000 (1.58x).

The two jobs paying the least are both among the top 5 most common fields. Taken together, 7.6 million people worked in fast food restaurants (2nd overall) or as cashiers (5th) in 2017. There were 4.4 million retail salespersons ($13.20), 3.9 million laborers and material movers ($13.73), and 3.6 million secretaries and administrative assistants ($19.74).

Among the top ten most common professions, registered nurses earn the most. In 2017, a registered nurse made an average hourly wage of $35.36. Those in the upper decile received over $50 per hour or over $100,000 per year.

More than 500,000 people make a living washing dishes.

Most of our nation’s lowest-paid work occurs in only a few different sectors: food service, retail sales, the creation and cleaning of clothing, and in agriculture.

Medicine is the top field, and the highest-paying vocations within medicine are surgery, dentistry, anesthesiology, and podiatry. Workers in engineering, information systems, and senior management are all in the top ten.

Fixing the problem

Is there a way for workers to get out of this predicament. If policy-makers believe that education is the answer, as many analyses of labor markets would suggest, then we have to invest more in job training. While it is only fair to point out that many low-wage workers are on a path to move on to much higher paying work after completing their degree, most are not. Still, we know that a practical vocational degree can quickly change the trajectory of a person's career. Many well-paid positions do not require a college degree. Our community colleges are well-situated to effect these changes. Workers do not have to leave the labor market for four years. A two-year associate's degree can move a restaurant worker from waiting tables to managing the house. A six-month program in plumbing or HVAC could lead a person to qualify for an apprenticeship.

Still, more opportunity at our community colleges is only one aspect of how things need to change. At its core, a system where so many people earn less than a living wage reflects a fundamental lack of respect for their work. Many people depend on the availability of childcare. We entrust those workers to our children. Yet the evidence shows that those individuals toil in poverty, earning a wage so low that most have to live in cramped and possibly substandard housing. Have you ever noticed how many childcare workers bring their own kids to their place of work? 

This data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2017 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates survey.

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