Salaries in Montana

Food service industry is consistently at the bottom of the salary range, with dishwasher and fast food server making minimum hourly wages. The highest salaries are in the medical field, from surgeons to clinical lab scientists having above average salaries.

Is $40,000 a year a lot of money for someone to earn?

Probably not after that person learns that the highest average wage in Montana was $238,640 in 2013.

Of course, $40,000 is still more than double the lowest earners in the state — taking in an average $18,150 as gaming dealers.

The Chronicle analyzed 2013 Montana Department of Labor and Industry occupational wage data to look at how much money Montanans were earning, where they were making it and how that compared across the state and to the nation.

On average, Montanans were still behind the national average for annual wages in all occupations, at $39,034 compared to the U.S. average of $46,440.

But according to one economist, that comes as no surprise.

"The last time Montana was meaningfully closer to the U.S. average (wage) was back in the mining days," said Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at University of Montana.

Barkey pointed out that for at least the last 20 years, Montana has ranked between 48th and 50th of U.S. states for wage per job.

Though they may fail to catch up with national increases, statewide numbers have been on the upswing, largely on the backs of a few high-wage areas like southwest Montana, the Missoula metropolitan area, and the statewide leader in average wage, the Billings metropolitan area.

For Billings, the regional average was $40,733 in 2013, with southwestern Montana just below, at $39,698. The Great Falls metropolitan area held the bottom slot with an average annual wage of $36,572.

Most stark was the difference — in all areas — between the highest- and lowest-paying jobs.

At the top of the heap in southwestern Montana are physicians and surgeons, taking in roughly $243,000 per year (technically, general internists are the top earners, at roughly $246,000, but total employment data is blank, so it's unclear if any are actually employed in the area).

But only 240 people have those jobs, while 3,880 people work as cashiers (the highest-paying of the bottom 10 earners), earning an average of $20,540 per year.

In the same region, however, cashiers don't even crack the top 10 list by number of people employed. That list is firmly topped with office and administrative support workers, sales and related workers and food preparation and service workers.

Those jobs pay an average of $21,040 to $31,770 per year — certainly in the lower end of the spectrum — and while Gallatin County and the city of Bozeman are aiming to attract higher-wage jobs, those in retail and service aren't going away, said City Commissioner Chris Mehl, who also works with Headwaters Economics.

"We have to be realistic, and that is that Bozeman — and Gallatin — is always going to be a retail and tourism hub," Mehl said. "We're always going to have a large number of those jobs, and they generally pay less."

The vast gap between top and bottom earners is an issue that has always existed to some degree, but the city is aiming to attract more middle-earning jobs, Mehl said.

"From a Bozeman perspective, we're attached to a ship, and we can affect it to some degree," he said. "Our goal is to attract wages that can support a family."

Mehl said the wage gap is a timeless struggle that will always be an issue for local, county, state and federal leaders.

Barkey noted the ongoing debate over wage gaps as well, though he said it has more to do with how Americans hold their wages as a bit of a personal matter.

"The amount of money you make is kind of like a report card on you," Barkey said. "People don't like it when it's all spread out and you get a 'D' when other people are (getting an 'A' or a 'B')."

In southwestern Montana, as well as statewide and nationally, medical and related occupations made up the most of the 10 highest-paying occupations — but those jobs accounted for a small percentage of employment.

In eastern Montana, where the energy industry dominates the business landscape, only three medical jobs made the top-10 list for pay. Energy, construction and even law enforcement jobs dominated the list there.

Outside the medical field (where average annual wages skewed as much as $120,000 higher than non-medical jobs), chief executives were the top earners in the U.S., across Montana and in southwest Montana. 

Statewide, executives earned an average of $112,980 in wages for 2013, compared to $178,400 nationally, and $118,610 for southwest Montana.

At the bottom of the wage totem pole, workers in the service industry (primarily food service) held down the list, with average annual wages ranging from $18,150 to $19,550.

The analysis also revealed that while the top 10 earners in the state overall (all in medical fields) had a difference in wages of more than $100,000 from the top earning job to the 10th spot, the 10 lowest-paying jobs only differed by $1,400.

Barkey noted that those gaps make sense because while the market might dictate a wage floor for all occupations, it doesn't necessarily dictate a wage cap.

Those gaps might be more stark from one to the next if the data included business owners who don't necessarily collect a paycheck. Doctors might top the list for wage earners, but business owners don't necessarily write themselves a paycheck, Barkey said.

Any business owners that didn't include themselves in payroll would have been excluded from the data, confirmed Barbara Wagner, chief economist with the Research and Analysis Bureau of the state Department of Labor and Industry.

According to data provided by Mehl, about 16 percent of income in Gallatin County was earned by proprietors in 2013, while 66 percent was in wage and salary disbursements.

Daniel DeMay can be reached at ddemay@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2651. He is on Twitter at @Daniel_DeMay.

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