Fast Company

Beginning Wages of Airline Pilots

The bill of fare for today’s luncheon is crow. I recently wrote something that attracted a lot of criticism, and some of that criticism was earned. I packaged some occupational information in a way that several readers found misleading. Let’s look at what we can learn from this kerfuffle.

The main appeal of the books in the Best Jobs series is the lists of occupations the books feature: Best Jobs for People with an Artistic Personality, Best Jobs in the Health Science Career Cluster, Best Jobs That Usually Require a Bachelor’s Degree, and so forth. I often add some “bonus” lists that sort the selection of occupations in some unexpected way, such as bringing in a different database, or sorting the database according to a criterion not used elsewhere in the book.

In a recent book, the second edition of 250 Best-Paying Jobs, I included a bonus list called “28 Jobs in Which Even Beginners Are Well-Paid.” The list featured occupations in which the workers who earn at the 10th percentile (meaning that 90 percent of the workers in the occupation earn more than they do) still earn at least $51,540, which means they earn more than 75 percent of all American wage-earners. The title for the list reflects the assumption that in any occupation, the workers in the lowest decile of the earnings distribution tend to be beginners, so the 10th percentile wage can serve as a rough indicator of beginning wages.

When this list appeared in a press release, it was featured in several media outlets. And that’s when I started getting negative feedback. Let me emphasize that any fault is mine; I have nothing but the highest praise for the skills of JIST’s publicist, Selena Dehne. It’s a tribute to her wide reach that my list reached so many critical readers.

The item on the list that attracted criticism was Airline Pilots, Copilots, and Flight Engineers, which was listed with a beginning wage of $55,330. One of the Web sites that ran the press release received several e-mails from pilots who said that beginners are paid much less than this. One person took the trouble to Google my e-mail address and wrote me directly to say that pilots “start at American Eagle or one of the many slave labor USAir/Northwest Jet Link/Continental Express carriers. They start you at $20,000, less than a new hire at Burger King.”

I actually had read about the shockingly low wages of beginning airline pilots; the news media carried several stories about this when a regional airline crashed outside Buffalo in February of 2009. The National Transportation Safety Board reported that the copilot on that flight earned only $16,000 per year; her employer later stated that she earned $23,900, but that is still a very low wage for such a high-skill job. Even the major airlines don’t pay $55,330 to pilots in their first year, as you can see in a salary survey report.

In my own defense, I should point out that both the book and the press release stated that the wage figure I reported was the 10th percentile. But this case points out the risks of assuming that the 10th percentile figure is a useful stand-in for the beginning wage.

My guess is that there is great variation between occupations in where the true beginning wage falls in the distribution of all wage-earners. In some occupations, the lowest-earning decile and the pool of beginners may be roughly the same group of workers. But not in all, as the case of airline pilots points out (to my chagrin).

Why is the distribution so different for airline pilots? Probably an important cause is the low turnover rate of the occupation. Pilots qualify for the job by logging many hours of flight experience, often in the military but sometimes from work as flight instructors. Once they break into the career, they are discouraged from leaving because of the time and effort they have expended to get started. They are encouraged to stay in the occupation by the possibility of six-figure salaries (with extra earnings for overtime, extra trips, per diem expenses, and international flights) that captains earn. And they can stay in the occupation a long time; they are not required to retire until age 65. This low turnover rate would tend to keep the pool of beginners fairly small, perhaps considerably smaller than 10 percent of the wage-earners.

The other major contributing factor is the airline’s fiscal woes. You probably have heard that airlines charge you a fee when they check your bag or change your reservation to a roomier seat. The same economic forces that created these nuisance fees are conspiring to keep beginning pilots’ earnings low. While this situation persists, the difference between the earnings of the 10th and 5th percentiles will probably remain more steep than in most occupations.

(For more on pilots’ earnings, see a blog entry on The Wall Street Journal site.)

The fundamental question, then, is whether it makes sense for me to continue using the 10th percentile earnings as a rough indicator of beginning wages across occupations. One solution is to drop this figure and report only the median wage, but I feel that readers will lose an important indicator of wage growth potential if they are shown only one point in the income distribution. Another solution is to label this figure the “10th percentile earnings,” but I fear that many readers will not understand this term. Still another solution, which I actually used in 150 Recession-Proof Jobs, is to indicate the wage growth potential of the occupation by calculating the ratio of the 10th percentile earnings to the median, and then offer an appropriate verbal phrase, such as “Earnings Growth Percentage: High.”

I have not yet made up my mind about the best strategy to use and welcome comments from readers, as always.

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