A chart posted on Vox has broken down 820 U.S. occupations by industry and wages. Created by Reddit user Dan Lin, it's a quick way to see where the money goes in our economy and the short answer is medicine. The nine highest paying jobs, by average income, are doctors and nurses with surgeons and anesthesiologists taking the top three spots.
A few thoughts on this. First, we should take any data that tracks mean wages with a grain of salt. Averages are easy to sway with high or low end clusters. Lawyers, for example, rarely earn low six-figure salaries. Legal incomes tend to gather in the $160,000+ or sub-$80,000 ranges, depending largely on whether you work for a large firm.
Still, the medicine-heavy list fits most expectations. Medical school has long been seen as a route to stable, high paying careers if you can survive eight years of student loans and a low paying residency. In fact, a large part of what drives doctors' pay in the U.S. is the enormous amount of debt and personal sacrifice it takes to get there.
Given the chronic shortage of qualified doctors, especially in primary care, that's not likely to change any time soon. The problem is how heavily these salaries contribute to the spiraling costs of medical services. Like lawyers, many doctors take home increasingly large paychecks to compensate for the growing amount of debt they must shoulder to enter practice. It's not uncommon for professionals in either field to begin their career already owing nearly $250,000 dollars.
Of course, where law has very different issues of supply and demand than medicine. Most doctors can demand high salaries, because we don't have a large supply of them. There's no shortage of lawyers out there looking for work.
Unfortunately most realistic conversations around student loan reform won't slow this down. Reducing interest rates or allowing some income based repayments don't address the core issue: young people have too much debt. While this isn't the whole problem it's a big piece of it. Until we can return to a system where graduates don't start their lives with a mortgage payment the prices will keep going up as a matter of necessity.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.