Skilled Trade Pay Scales


October 1, 2015

Set your sights on being better than average.

It’s easy to be misled when you look at data about how much skilled trade workers earn. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes such data, but I have found their information to be outdated and lacking in context.

For example, the most recent BLS statistics date to 2012 and give the median annual pay for the following occupations:image of increasing salary

Problem number one is that those are national medians. (Median means half of the sampling earns less, half more. That is different than average pay, which may be somewhat different although they’re probably not too far apart.)  A nationwide median or average doesn’t take into account local conditions. You can be sure that the median pay for plumbers in New York, Chicago and other big cities is a lot more than $49,000, while many rural and low-cost areas of the country will find median pay scales below the BLS figures.

A second issue is generalization. The occupational category of “plumber” covers a lot of different ground. It encompasses both construction and service plumbers, those who do residential vs. commercial work, and it also includes pipefitters and steamfitters whose trades resemble plumbing but involve significantly different kinds of tasks. HVAC technicians and electricians have equally varied distinctions among them. Pay scales can vary greatly depending on your work specialty.

The data also fails to distinguish between self-employed trade workers, often one-man shops, and those employed by large contracting organizations. Self-employed trade workers often report modest official income but enjoy many tax advantages that boost their lifestyle.

One thing I do know is that after spending some three and a half decades writing about these trades, the BLS pay scales are much lower than the incomes of most of the trade workers I encountered. That may be because, as a trade journalist, I tended to write about the top companies in the industry. In any occupation, the biggest and best employers tend to pay more than run-of-the-mill firms.

Here’s something else I know: Whatever you do in life, it pays to set your sights high. If you are contemplating a career as a plumber, HVAC technician or electrician, do not think your earning power will be on the downside of $50,000 a year. The best skilled trade workers can earn double that amount and more. And, as I’ve noted in previous blogs, the trades offer one of the best opportunities to go into business for yourself. The sky is the limit when it comes to income for a successful business owner.

One other thing I know: You don’t rise to the top without a lot of effort. By definition half of skilled trade workers are on the downside of those median pay scales. Maybe some are victims of circumstance, but I suspect most of them are there because they didn’t try hard enough to become the best they could be. People on the bottom rungs of any profession will find it harder to land lucrative jobs than those whose talents and efforts put them in high demand.

Shoot for the moon. Maybe you’ll only reach the stratosphere, but that’s better than crashing back to earth!