The 10 Most Underpaid Jobs

Most everybody thinks they’re underpaid for what they do.   But in reality, there are a handful of select jobs where this claim is especially true.   Here’s my take on the 10 most underpaid jobs.   Unless otherwise noted, annual income figures are based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

After reading this list, if you think I’ve overlooked a particular job (like yours), please leave a comment and let me have it with both barrels.   Just keep the profanity and ad hominems to a minimum.

10. Janitor

Average Annual Income: $23,500
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $45,000
Appreciation Meter: Office outcasts rarely invited to workplace birthday celebrations and promotion parties.
Why They’re Underpaid: In office buildings and schools all over the world, janitors quietly go about their job of picking up everybody’s mess.   Their work is usually done behind the scenes, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that they often have to deal with some really messy clean-ups like throw-up and excrement.   When they leave work the place is spotless.   They do this knowing the next day they’ll just have to it clean up all over again.   Talk about a sisyphean challenge.

9. Youth Sports  Referee/Umpire

Average Annual Income: $28,330
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $50,000
Public Appreciation Meter: Slightly above the small pox virus, but one notch below dog poop.   Okay, okay – two notches.
Why They’re Underpaid: Without these extremely tolerant men and women, there would be no organized sports leagues for our kids.   Despite that fact, the next time you want to pick-up a few fresh insult lines that would make a sailor blush, stop by your local park and take in a youth sports competition.   When you consider all the abuse that these referees and umpires take on a daily basis, it is a wonder that anybody actually aspires to be in such a position in the first place.

8. Little League President / Board Member

Average Annual Income: $0
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $35,000
Public Appreciation Meter: More likely to be approached by folks carrying pitchforks & torches than “thank you” letters.
Why They’re Underpaid: I was a Little League President for two years, so I know what I am talking about here.   For a volunteer, the hours are extremely long – upwards of 40 per week.   Everybody is always upset at you, calling at all hours of the night to complain about trivial things.   And when you’re not acting as the League’s pin cushion you’re playing psychologist, soothing the bruised egos of parents who all think their kid is the second coming of Derek Jeter.     Good times.

7.   Nurse

Average Annual Income: $65,130
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $150,000
Public Appreciation Meter: Not too bad, actually.
Why They’re Underpaid: This job often requires a cast-iron stomach and entails very long hours with sometimes-grumpy and uncooperative patients.   I say anybody who has to assist with surgeries, change bedpans, insert catheters, give injections and sponge baths, and provide other general care and comfort to the sick and injured on a daily basis is almost by definition, underpaid.

6. Exterminator

Average Annual Income: $31,210
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $125,000
Public Appreciation Meter: Exterminated.
Why They’re Underpaid: Exterminators often have to work in dark and tight places. They’re often required to work with hazardous chemicals too.   The worst part though is they’re constantly at risk of being bit or stung, or contracting rabies, hepatitis, or other diseases from vermin that most of us would just as soon never even have to look at: poisonous snakes, rats, black widow spiders, rabid raccoons, skunks, bats, gators, bees, mice, cockroaches, and rats.   “Uh, Len, you said ‘rats’ twice.”   I know – that’s because I really hate rats.

5. Septic Tank Servicer

Average Annual Income: $35,550
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $135,000
Public Appreciation Meter: “You mean somebody actually has to clean those things out?”
Why They’re Underpaid: Their job description stinks – and I mean literally: Clean and repair septic tanks, sewer lines, or related structures.  Clean and disinfect domestic basements  and other areas flooded by sewer stoppages.   Withdraw cables from pipes and examine them for evidence of mud, roots, grease, and other deposits indicating broken or clogged sewer lines.   By the way, I’ll give you two guesses what “other deposits” could be, and the first one doesn’t count.

4. Embalmer

Average Annual Income: $39,320
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $150,000
Public Appreciation Meter: Better than some professions, but not as good as most.
Why They’re Underpaid: When I was growing up I lived next door to a mortician.   I still remember the empty industrial-sized containers of embalming powder he kept in his garage to store everyday stuff.   My family became close with his and we did a lot of things together.   Uncle Chuck was such a funny and easy going guy, which always amazed me considering his very somber duties at the mortuary, stories of which he shared freely with us kids as we became teenagers.   One of his duties was embalming; it is a difficult and surprisingly physically demanding job.   To this day I still remain amazed at how Uncle Chuck could be so easy going and carefree at home considering all the sadness and heartache he encountered on a daily basis at work.

3. Lineman

Average Annual Income: $54,300
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $200,000
Public Appreciation Meter: Only when the local power goes out.
Why They’re Underpaid: Not too surprisingly, this job regularly ranks among those with the ten highest fatality rates.   This job is much worse than that of a professional tight-rope walker, as it combines nerve-wracking heights with extremely high electrical currents.   If that doesn’t convince you, maybe this will.   And if you have a few extra minutes, maybe even this.

2. Trauma Scene Clean-up Worker

Average Annual Income: $35,000   (according to answerbag.com)
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $250,000
Public Appreciation Meter: Dead on arrival.
Why They’re Underpaid: Did you ever wonder who goes in and cleans up the blood, guts and random body parts after major car accidents, homicides and other similar tragedies?   I don’t think most people do – they just figure a site magically cleans itself up after the authorities leave the scene.     I once spoke to a guy who used to do this for a living and he said the job is absolutely horrific and often requires superhuman intestinal fortitude and emotional control.   Here’s a chilling job description that warns potential job applicants what to expect and here are some common tools of their trade.

1. Military Soldier/Sailor

Average Annual Income: $16,794 (First-year, enlisted)
Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $1,000,000
Public Appreciation Meter: Getting better, but still not enough.
Why They’re Underpaid: The job of a soldier is, without a doubt, the most underpaid job in the world.   In addition to being charged with putting their lives on the line on a daily basis in order to protect us and our way of life, the soldier’s job description also entails many of the difficult jobs previously mentioned.   On top of that, they often have to do their jobs with minimal sleep, rations, and almost impossible living conditions.   The freshest US recruits have to do all that for a base salary of just over $16,000 per year — and after their military taxes are deducted it’s even less. We should all keep that in mind the next time we think we’re underpaid for what we do.   :-)

So there you have it: the 10 most underpaid jobs. If you’re interested, you might also want to check out my list of the 10 most overpaid jobs — I’m sure that’ll ruffle a few feathers out there.    ;-)

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    I can totally relate to job number 5, Septic Tank Servicer.

    When I was 16, my uncle got me a job at Stinky Incorporated, over in Montclair. I was a minor, so I wasn’t allowed near any chemicals or excrement. So, I was basically the yard-dog and designated digger. I dug up septic tanks, washed the trucks and picked up after the guard dog.

    Talk about a cr@ppy job, this was definitely it. No benefits, no future and a high probability of catching hepatitis. Two of my coworkers crashed in a pumper truck over the side of Mt. Baldy road carrying a full load. What a terrible way for these men to die.

    I only lasted about six months.

  2. 2

    says

    Wow, Bret. Very sorry to hear about your coworkers; what a sad story.

    I hope you got at least a little more than minimum wage for your efforts. Your experience makes my first real job as a grocery store box-boy seem like a real luxury job in comparison.

  3. 3

    says

    No, minimum wage was all and I worked pretty hard for it. Luckily, it only lasted a couple of months.

    My second job I was a box-boy too and that was a luxury. Union pay, nice benefits and upward mobility to checker. I rode that job well into college. I guess I got a little smarter the second time around.

  4. 5

    Meg says

    How can you leave out teachers?! ~$30k for a job that requires AT LEAST a bachelor’s and often a master’s degree, plus usually extra classes and ongoing training to keep certification! And now that teacher’s planning periods are going the way of the dodo, the workload outside of school has increased even more making for VERY long hours without overtime. Plus, there’s the stress of all the changing requirements, the politics, the out-of-pocket expenses for class supplies, and having to deal with students that are often times not only annoying but even dangerous! And of course, everyone seems to think that they know more about education than their kid’s teacher and many will flat out say, “I pay taxes. That means I’m your boss.” And, my favorite, “Teachers don’t need to be paid more. That’s what they have husbands for.” (I am NOT making this up, either. These are only some of the reasons I decided to not become a teacher after all.)

    • 6

      says

      Yes, I agree with Meg. Teachers need to be paid more and appreciated more. They need to be compensated for doing what I think is a very important and delicate job – molding the minds and lives of their students.

    • 7

      Cindy says

      Wow 30 k for a teacher! They must love the job and I am thankful for that I couldn’t do it. Thank you teachers you are special. You should try to relocate if possible where I live many make 80 k and great benefits!

  5. 8

    says

    @Bret: You know, the union bennies and pay were great back then, but have since come back down to earth. I made $14,000 when I was 18, as a part time checker – that’s roughly $35,000 in today’s dollars, not bad for a teenager. The worst part of being a box boy was going out into the rain to get shopping carts, and cleaning up really messy stuff like syrup (back when stuff was still stored in glass).

    @Jae: Yes, Jae, you can put yourself on the list. For a job that pays more than yours, may I suggest you try your hand at becoming a professional Ponzi schemer – I hear they make a lot of money! ;-)

    @Meg: Teachers weren’t on the list because this article only considered the top 10 underpaid jobs. I lost my research notes for this article, but I if I remember correctly, teachers and Jae were tied for 11th place. ;-)

  6. 9

    Marcie says

    When you consider that they cook, clean, run errands and do other duties I think stay at home moms need to be included on your list!

    • 10

      Cindy says

      Get real Marcie. Taking care of your children isn’t work it is a privilege and part of being a parent. I just workEd 12.5 hours put in 2 catheters,, changed bedpans, bowel movements, passed meds 10 times and gave health teaching to a terminally I’ll cancer patient who is 29. Then I came home and did everything it takes to run my house. I wouldn’t change my job for anything but it doesn’t compare to sitting at home all day.

  7. 11

    says

    You know, Marcie, the Honeybee is a stay at home mom – so don’t think I didn’t take that into consideration! :-)

    There is no doubt that stay at home moms (or dads) deserve our respect. My mom did it all when I was a kid, cleaning, cooking, shopping and other errands, home improvement tasks, etc. – she often was even pressed into service doing the lawn work when my dad was out working long extra hours and I was still too young to do it myself.

    That being said, however, you’ve got to admit there are some real perks to the job. In the end I didn’t include them on the list because I thought the other 10 jobs I listed had it just a bit tougher, in my opinion – and that pushed the moms into a tie at number 11 with teachers and Jae (whatever he does). lol

  8. 12

    JJ says

    I know someone who was a trauma scene clean-up worker. She’s been called to at least one scene where someone committed suicide with a shotgun. So she had to hunt down about 1000 pieces of buckshot that carried brain into/through the ceiling and walls. Then she had to clean up around five kilograms of human head that had been aerosolized and strewn about the room.

    She doesn’t do that anymore

  9. 14

    says

    Interesting article here, and it’s definitely a shame that so many of those jobs, especially soldier, are so underpaid. Janitor too, as I always feel bad for those guys (and girls) having to clean up all that nasty stuff, only to get it get nastified again the very next day.

  10. 17

    Meghan says

    Thank you for making the American soldier the #1 underpaid job. I would say they are not respected nearly enough. My husband is a 100% disabled vet, awarded a purple heart and Distinguished Service Cross for his valor (just beneath the medal of honor for those who don’t know – he entered a burning building 5 times to pull guys out, took over a dozen rounds). If you want to help a soldier, please don’t say, “if there’s anything I can do let me know.” It’s insulting, 99% of people don’t mean it. Do something: offer to babysit if they have kids so they can have date with their spouse before deployment, write letters, cook a meal, repair something around the house. You think active duty guys have it bad. It took the VA over a year to process my husband, until then it was 70% of his base pay – about 600$ after health insurance. BTW we have to pay for health insurance and copays for his combat related care! Sorry if this has turned into rambling, but all soldiers, especially those wounded in combat, deserve the highest respect.

    • 18

      says

      You’re very welcome, Meghan. I want to give a big thank you to your husband for his service and sacrifice. I also appreciate those terrific tips for ways we can all help our brave servicemen and women make their lives just a little bit easier. All the best to you and your husband.

  11. 19

    says

    As the spouse of a retired military servicemember (now deceased), I certainly agree that that the military is grossly underpaid. We take for granted the commitment they make to ensure that we are able to walk around, enjoy freedom and voice our opinions about how the government should work without rolling up our sleeves to do the job. Often I didn’t understand his dedication to the military, but after September 11th, it became even clearer.

    • 20

      says

      Well said, Lillie. Our men and women in uniform are a very special breed, indeed, and we owe them our gratitude for defending this great nation of ours and putting their lives on the line for us.

  12. 21

    Daniel says

    I disagree with number one totally. If it was 1 million dollars everyone would go. It’s not even that serious. We haven’t had many die in the past 7 years and when they get out do u know how many jobs love hiring a man out of there? They get paid a ton. U my friend are wrong completely.

    • 22

      says

      That is an, um, interesting take there, Daniel. I realize these are only opinions, after all, but for you to say that the soldier’s job isn’t dangerous because “we haven’t had that many of them die in the past seven years,” well, that is just flat out incorrect (to put it nicely).

      Now pass me whatever it is you’ve been smoking, because I could use a little break from reality myself right about now. ;-)

      • 23

        Hellbourne Frosthate says

        Soldiers are not underpaid,
        They are overpaid.
        People brand them as heroes,
        we don’t need to pay heroes.
        And do your mother ask you for payment
        for raising you?
        It’s their responsibility as citizens.
        And they have the luxury of having a respected death
        when they die in duty.

        Those people who thinks military job is underpaid are selfish but I don’t blame them because that is just a side effect of democracy and liberty where people pursue their own happiness.

        • 24

          Len Penzo says

          Heh. Okay. It’s almost 8 p.m.; I think your weekend furlough from the institution is about to expire.

  13. 25

    says

    Post is good enough, but I also agree with Daniel in case one which is something irrelevant.It it was 1 million dollars most of them would have running behind the same & their would have been so human loss.

      • 27

        Bryan says

        How is it not true that a soldier’s job is not as dangerous as it used to be. They don’t have to worry as much about getting diseases or receiving meals. Especially with today’s technology they basically act as the clean up crew after the predator drones and other robotic war machines take care of the dirty work. More people died during the invasion of Normandy beach in an hour than the entire Iraq war.

        • 28

          Philip says

          I’m assuming your speaking from a perspective as a combat vet of ANY conflict, or for that matter, even as just a Cold War soldier. If not you honestly don’t have the basis to stand on.

  14. 31

    Carol Streamer says

    Back in 1974 I asked myself, “Are you more interested in having such as a public restroom and public transportation and a public library available to you or do you want a big paycheck.” Considering the nearest public restroom was 2 miles away and I had to no department store, fast food outlet, shelter, water source, place to sit down, etc.—I decided big salaries and big paychecks don’t always come with life’s necessities. Now I realize that some think the world owes them big time. However I was raised to understand I was merely a renter of space & possessions on this earth not a lifetime owner. As a caretaker many people have failed to do their bit to respect the soil, water, and air but have managed to complain about not getting their fair share. Greed is a deadly sin. It is oh so easy to find a reason for jealousy and to lose sight of what is really valuable to making life meaningful.

    • 32

      says

      Interesting take, Carol. I appreciate you sharing your perspective. The thing is, the existence of public restrooms, public transportation, and public libraries largely depend on the taxes of people earning big paychecks. Without them, government wouldn’t have any money to spend on those items.

  15. 33

    Kelly says

    Thanks Len for including my profession(nurse) on your list. I’m in a low cost of living area and make about 10K less/year than your average salary you listed. I appreciate the recognition! I have been called every name in the book, kicked, spit on, hit, punched, bit,etc. On a daily basis too!

    • 34

      says

      You’re very welcome, Kelly. Speaking as someone who at one time spent a few weeks in a hospital after a major car accident, rest assured there are a lot of people out there who appreciate all that you do! :-)

  16. 36

    Financial Bondage says

    I agree with Janitor, having done that work myself. It is a thankless job that society looks down upon. Good list. I agree with the choices.

  17. 37

    CNA's says

    I think CNA’s are very well underpayed we do work that most people would not do and get minimum wage we need more money a nurse can make 40,000.00 a year and they don’t have to wipe butt and clean up after people they only yell at the CNA to do it for them.

    • 39

      Cindy says

      CNA are grossly underpaid. Nurses couldn’t do it without good CNAs. Go to a hospital you will make a decent wage and if you ever choose to persue nursing you have great experience. If not then you are valuable and I wish good CNAs made more.

  18. 40

    Monique says

    TEACHERS!!!!! TIED FOR 11! No WAY! Tied for #2 maybe! I’ll 110% give you military personel at #1.

    Annual Income: $35,000
    Annual Income If It Were Up to Me: $100,000 or more
    Public Appreciation Meter: Getting worse daily

    Why They’re Underpaid: Without teachers there would be no doctors, nurses, lawyers, politicians, CNA’s, embalmers, linemen or many other occupations. You are intrusting the minds, mindset and future earning potential of an entire nation to people who make one tenth of the minimum salary of a rookie NFL player!

    Take any one of the ten occupations that you have listed there and say to yourself would I walk up to this person and say: “Take my child. For the next 15 years please spend 8 hours a day for five days a week and share with him/her everything that they will have to use in order to become successful in this world. Cover my shortcomings, make sure they know how to properly interact socially, behave responsibly and eat properly. Oh yes I also need you to make sure that you use part of your meager salary to make sure that you are up to date on the latest and greatest trends and techniques in your industry. Please do that in you off time and do not let it interfere with my child’s time. By the way…he/she is bringing along 20 to 25 friends for which I am giving you the same responsibilty. I am going to provide you with a helper for one to two hours a day and that is all. Thanks! Oh if you do this for thirty years without stopping (only 20 with a soldier) I will give you a small pension so that you can live out your old age in poverty.” Then ask yourself again if it belongs at 11.

    No I am not a teacher. I decided against it when i realized how underpaid, under appreciated and overworked they are in that occupation. I just have a great appreciation for the great influences that they have been in my life.

    Sorry for the long rant but don’t even get me started on goverments cutting educational funds and then increasing taxes to build new sports areanas!

    • 41

      says

      Well, Monique, I think you are writing a bigger job description for teachers than their union contracts say they are required to do; frankly, most of those jobs – teaching kids to eat properly, behave responsibly, and interact socially – are the responsibility of their parents.

      Probably the biggest reason I didn’t put teachers on the list is that, when you consider they only work nine months out of the year, they aren’t paid that bad.

      (I bet I just ticked off a lot of teachers.)

      • 42

        Philip says

        Unfortunately with the rise of two working parent households, teachers are left to do many of the jobs that parents (or the stay at home parent) used to do.

    • 44

      Rob Lewis says

      I just read your article about overpaid professions, it’s instructive to compare athletes and coaches with teachers. The performance of athletes and coaches is constantly measured and reflected in their compensation. Hit the ball, complete the passes, Win the games and they are well rewarded. Fail to perform and they get to find a new job. On the other hand, the teachers’ unions have resisted any attempt to measure or pay for performance with great determination and success. Good teachers and bad, successful and unsuccessful are paid the same, and as teachers are government employees, dismissing even obvious non-performers is very difficult. One result of this is that all teachers are paid as if mediocre. As if it didn’t matter who the teachers were. I make more than any of the teachers who taught me, some of them were truly excellent and I’m grateful to them. I hate to see them treated the same as the duds, but as long as the unions have their way, that probably won’t change.

      • 45

        Len Penzo says

        Well said, Rob. I too am grateful for some teachers I had — after all these years I still remember who they are and am thankful for everything they taught me. I also had some truly pitiful teachers. It’s unfortunate that teachers don’t overrule their union masters and DEMAND that they be paid based upon merit, like all non-union people do in the private sector. The good teachers would be rewarded with higher pay and the poor teachers would get smaller (or no) raises each year. It’s the fairest compensation system there is, and best of all, it encourages (most) everyone to perform at their peak proficiency. (I say “most” because there are always some folks who will just show up to get a paycheck.)

        • 46

          Philip says

          I think you’re opening a can of worms. How do we separate good from bad? Add’l supervisors in the classroom? Student evaluations? No Child Left Behind has demonstrated that if passing is success, then children will be taught what it takes to pass a test.

          • 47

            Len Penzo says

            I agree, Philip; NCLB is a disaster.

            But you seem to be suggesting that evaluations for teachers are impossible. I disagree.

            With two kids of my own who have been winding their way through the public school system for the last 10 years, I’ve almost always been able to identify their better teachers from the poorer ones. It’s really not difficult.

            I’m an engineer who has been evaluated against hundreds of other engineers every year for the past 25 years. In all that time, the evaluations have never been absolutely perfect, but if I am being honest with myself, they have usually been very very close.

            The only time I thought I got two “raw-deal” evaluations in a row, I left my employer for a new one. Why can’t teachers do the same thing?

            I think principals have the means of properly ranking their teachers too. They can do it the same way it’s done in the private sector: setting employee-specific goals and then measuring how well they did in meeting or exceeding them. (And student test scores don’t even have to be part of that process!)

            My $0.02 after taxes. :-)

  19. 48

    anonymous says

    If the military was paid a million dollars the country would be in terrible shape. They don’t even need a college degree.

    • 49

      Philip says

      You, sir or ma’am, are a moron. All officers are required to have at least a bachelors degree. For anyone to get promoted, officer or enlisted, college education is a requirement.

  20. 50

    Justin says

    A Trauma Scene Clean-up Worker really deserves to make as much as my father does? Really? I get what they do is extremely gross and requires a lot of physical labor, but it doesn’t take a masters degree or anything more than a few clean up tools. This reminds me of the time I overheard a worker for the landscaping company we hire complaining about how underpaid he was. If these service people can’t stand their meager salaries then they should consider going to school to obtain a higher paying career. I think this applies to a lot of the other jobs you mentioned. Maybe the post was sarcastic, but its ridiculous to think that a solider deserves a seven figure salary.

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