Looking at pay

There's a world of difference between an anesthesiologist and a fast-food cook — the most prominent being a decade or more of specialized training and irregular hours filled with stress from working with lives on the line.

There's also the matter of $184,288.

That's the difference between the $197,745 average annual salary earned by an anesthesiologist in Columbus and the $13,457 per year a local cook makes on average, according to 2006 occupational wage data from the Georgia Department of Labor.

Do the math and it equates to $6.47 per hour for the cook, while the doctor administering sleep-inducing anesthesia during surgery takes home $95.07 an hour.

The occupational wage data takes particular importance this Labor Day, with some Americans struggling to make ends meet, while others find themselves in position to secure gourmet wants.

The pay discrepancy doesn't faze Sheila King, who has worked in food service about 20 years. Jobs have ranged from dietary cooking at local hospitals to fast-food positions like the one she now at a Wing Zone outlet on Buena Vista Road. She also caters some on the side.

King's reason for making the food business a career, even when the passion doesn't equate to dollars? She responded simply: "It's just something I love to do."

Most physicians would probably profess the same love for their job, even if it took years to get a degree and specialized training, and they spend long hours, often under duress in their workplace — a hospital or emergency room.

"I think the main factor in the compensation levels is how long it takes a person to be trained in some of these highly specialized areas," said Dr. Andrew Morley, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Columbus Regional Healthcare System, which operates The Medical Center.

For instance, an orthopedist trained to take care of trauma patients might have spent more than 15 years in college, medical school, residency and on a fellowship before taking their first formal job, Marley said. Columbus Regional recently landed its second and third such physicians after a 2-year nationwide search. The two doctors start this fall.

"You've got highly trained, highly skilled people who have spent 20-plus years to develop a skill set," Morley said. "And yes, it is stressful, and yes, there are long hours, and yes, there are issues that would put them in a category of, appropriately, highly compensated individuals."

Health care, legal at the top

So it is no surprise the highest-paid careers in Columbus come in the medical, legal and business fields. The Labor Department list topped by anesthesiologist is followed by dentist, family doctor, chief executive, judge, lawyer, chemical engineer, administrative manager, chiropractor and electronics engineer. The pay range — or hourly equivalent — is $95.07 to $36.65.

On the flip side is the $6.47 to $7.49 per hour paid to the fast-food cook, food-service worker, maid, counter attendant, child-care worker, bartender (who does make tips), dishwasher, cashier, bellhop and personal care worker.

The Labor Department wage data ranges from entry level to above-average paying occupations. Not all jobs were listed because of confidentiality rules, the department said.

Factoring in every occupation, the average hourly wage in Columbus was $15.03.

Higher-paying sectors include management, business, computers, engineering, social science and services, legal, education, health-care professionals and some sales positions.

The middle ground can be found in the fields of arts and design, protective service, office/administrative, forestry, construction, computer and mechanical repair, production and some transportation jobs.

The lower end of the scale includes health-care support, food preparation, building and grounds maintenance, personal care service and some basic sales positions such as cashier and counter clerk.

Perhaps the most startling average pay statistic is the emergency medical technician and paramedic, which was listed at $11.81 an hour. Over a 40-hour week, that adds up just more than $24,564 yearly. Take the numbers with a grain of salt, however, with the Columbus Consolidated Government this week advertising on its Web site a paramedic position at $29,120 per year, or $14 an hour.

Job market relief on the way

Labor Day 2007 comes with the Columbus metropolitan area unemployment rate registering 5.7 percent in July, the most recent figure available from the state Department of Labor. That's up from 5.4 percent in June and is an increase attributed to recent high school and college graduates entering the work force.

Jamie Loyd, manager of the department's Columbus Career Center on Veterans Parkway, expects relief on the job front in coming months as new employers begin to hire. Poultry processor AlaTrade Foods will hold a mass recruitment in October for more than 700 workers needed for its Phenix City plant that is under construction.

That's on top of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service hiring more than 100 recently with plans to add 65 more workers soon. Sun Fresh Beverages also will employ 50 as it gets a bottling line up and operating. And staffing agency Spherion in October will begin recruiting more than 100 workers for credit-card processor TSYS in October.

And the city is waiting to land some bigger fish, Loyd said.

"With the Kia thing up in West Point, there are a lot of suppliers looking to move here, and some of those could be 700 jobs, plus," he said. "We're getting pretty close, I think, to getting that. So the future is pretty bright."

The job creation should make hiring more competitive and possibly drive up wages. That's not necessarily the case now.

Shawn Finley, who opened his Wing Zone take-out and delivery eatery at 4908 Buena Vista Road in July, said more than 200 applicants were interviewed for less than a dozen positions. That struck Finley, who has a difficult time retaining certain staff at his other Wing Zone store in Auburn, Ala.

It's a balancing act, he said.

"You want to be competitive," Finley said. "If you're paying on the low side, you're not going to have the best workers. And if you're too far up there, you're running your labor costs up and not making a profit. So it is a fine line."