A lot of workers these days have an exaggerated sense of their own value. They think they ought to be paid more simply because they show up on time every day or work really hard, even if there are thousands of other people with the same skills or work ethic.
But some workers truly are underpaid, earning far less than average, even though they do work considered to be highly important. With employment finally picking up nationwide, one test of the economy's genuine strength will be whether pay in some key fields increases enough for some of America's most vital workers to get ahead.
To identify the most underpaid jobs, U.S. News analyzed data provided by the compensation experts at PayScale to highlight occupations in which people earn far less than median pay. We further sorted those jobs to isolate those in which workers say the stress is high (a proxy for how demanding the work is) and their work makes an important difference in the world. (See a full methodology note at the bottom of the story.)
There's clearly a subjective element to our methodology, and economists are right to assert that pay determined in a free-market economy generally reflects a fair value for what any given worker has to offer. Still, should employment pick up and slack in the workforce tighten, underpaid workers could be the first to see significant raises. Here's our list of the most underpaid jobs:
Assisted living coordinator (median mid-career salary: $36,900). Those who help organize the care of seniors earn about 31 percent less than the median pay for all workers, yet consider their work highly important. Many other caregivers made our list, including home-health workers and other aides working in hospitals, nursing homes or senior centers.
Daycare director ($32,100). Parents are fanatical about the care of their kids, yet many daycare workers barely earn enough to raise a family of their own. Daycare directors are among the lowest-paid management-level professionals in PayScale's database.
Police, fire or ambulance dispatcher ($39,300). They usually sound calm in news clips, yet handling emergency calls is one of the most stressful jobs you can have while sitting at a desk. Pay is well below the median, however, as it is for some firefighters and police officers.
Office nurse ($42,700). Amid intense efforts to lower medical costs, nurses these days provide much of the care that doctors used to—but get paid far less. Several types of nurses and medical aides landed on our underpaid list, including those who work in emergency rooms, intensive-care units and delivery rooms.
Medical insurance coordinator ($34,600). Talk about a thankless job. These behind-the-scenes functionaries typically work at hospitals, clinics or doctors' or dentists' offices, making sure all the paperwork is squared away between patients and their insurance companies. When there's a problem, they're the first to hear about it. But when everything goes smoothly, nobody knows they're there.
Lead pharmacy technician ($34,900). They help fill your prescriptions under the direction of the pharmacist at a retail chain or non-retail outlet. Yet the interaction with patients is minimal and pharmacies, like other parts of the healthcare industry, are under constant pressure to cut costs.
Veterinary technician ($32,800). Americans love their pets, as do many of the professionals who help care for them. But the rewards don't include lavish pay, especially during lean times when animal care becomes an expense some pet owners are forced to minimize.
Social worker ($42,300). This career is famous for the rewards that come from directly helping people who need it—and the stress that comes from barely being able to pay the bills.
Emergency medical technician / paramedic ($39,600). EMTs tend to love the unpredictable nature of their work and even the occasional dangers that come with tending to accident victims and other sick or injured people. They're clearly not in it for the money.
Artistic director ($48,200). It sounds glamorous, yet it can take years of dedication and grueling lifestyle sacrifices to become an artistic director at a theater, concert hall or performing arts company. Cutbacks in public funding for the arts make this an even more difficult career.
(Methodology: PayScale, which conducts detailed surveys on compensation, sorted data on thousands of occupations by three variables, each weighted equally: total median cash compensation for a worker with 10 years of experience or more, relative to the median for all jobs; the degree of job stress workers report in each field; and how meaningful workers say their job is. Jobs with high relative pay, low stress and low meaningful ratings were rated as "overpaid," while jobs with low relative pay, high stress and high meaningful ratings were rated as "underpaid." U. S. News combined some job categories to prevent repetition and make the list more representative of the entire economy.)
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.