Study: Region low in pay for nurses, others

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Pittsburgh employers wondering why jobs in finance or nursing go unfilled may need to look no further than one fact -- poor pay.

Compared with 14 benchmark cities, median wages for workers in five occupations here -- finance managers, retail sales workers, customer service representatives, child care workers and registered nurses -- were last or next to last.

To be fair, not all paychecks in the seven-county region (Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland) were undersized, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Online chart

Still, even the best-paying among the 18 occupations highlighted were not at the top of the charts. Family physicians and general practitioners ranked fourth, hotel clerks, fifth, and plumbers, sixth.

Another way of slicing the results: Pittsburghers' wages were below the benchmark average in all but four occupations -- hotel clerks, plumbers, elementary school teachers and family and general practitioners.

The U.S. Labor Department data released last month was analyzed by the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board and forwarded to the Regional Indicators Consortium, a Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh policy analysis group. The rankings and median pay figures are available on the consortium Web site.

The data were based on six surveys taken over three years, the most recent taken in May 2007.

The occupations chosen for regional review were intended to be representative of 700-plus that the labor department tracks. Kelleigh Boland, Three Rivers research coordinator, emphasized that the sampling was not intended to produce a comprehensive comparison.

"There are other occupations that we are better paid at," she said, "but these are promising ones for the region that we can take a look at to begin with."

In many cases, she added, the results aren't as bleak as some might project because the benchmark cities include several, such as Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the cost of living is much higher.

"We're much closer to Cincinnati and Cleveland on some wages than if you look at a Boston or Charlotte," she said. "So there's some question about how cost of living and city size play into these numbers."

Still, given the perceived strength of the financial and health care industries in southwestern Pennsylvania, the low pay of nurses and financial managers might come as a surprise -- and not a good one for companies concerned about recruiting young workers.

David Malone, chief financial officer of Gateway Financial Group and chairman of the Pennsylvania State Workforce Investment Board, said he would want to know how many of the finance jobs involved back-room operations, which are lower-paying.

"We have a huge back-office support work force with both Mellon and PNC here," he said, as compared with many other banks that base such operations off-shore.

Another factor that might explain the incongruity, he said, was how the term "financial manager" was defined.

With more than 3,000 managers being counted, Mr. Malone surmised the group included lots of small, neighborhood operations with no more than a handful of employees -- and thus, lower-paid managers.

A different logic prevailed in seeking reasons why nurses don't fare better.

Ann Dugan, executive director of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence at Pitt's Katz School of Business, said she'd want to explore the data to answer several questions.

She speculated about the difficulties in attracting top nursing school faculty, reaching younger and a broader range of students plus the dominance of two giants in the regional health care industry, Highmark and UPMC.

Ms. Dugan, a member of the consortium's economics committee, said: "I look at these kind of indicators and say: OK, what are we going to do about it? What are the industry factors going on there? What can we do to make it more competitive?

"We talk about the brain drain but young people are going to go where there's competitive wage rates. The goal is to keep them in the region."

David Guo can be reached at 412-263-1413 or .


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