SLO County wages: How do they stack up?

Quick quiz: What are the highest paid jobs in San Luis Obispo County? The lowest paid?

Answer: The five highest paid jobs in the county in 2015 were all in the medical field, and the lowest paid fields were farming, fishing and foresting.

From physicians to psychiatrists, the five top jobs in the county all require extensive medical training and provide average salaries of more than $181,000 annually, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In contrast, jobs in farming, fishing and forestry average about $11.72 per hour for a $24,280 annual salary.

It's instructive to look at what jobs pay well — and what jobs don’t — in San Luis Obispo County. And for all that this county has to offer — its natural beauty, recreation, healthy food and friendly residents — is it enough to compensate for its comparatively lower wages?

Lower pay, higher costs

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data compares workers across 22 fields — more than 330 distinct occupations — to compile the average hourly and annual wages in those fields, as well as overall county averages. The data gives a snapshot of how local wages compare with the rest of the state and country.

In 2015, San Luis Obispo County wages tended to fall short.

The average salary in 2015 for a San Luis Obispo County worker was $22.13 per hour, or about $46,040 annually. In California, that average was $26.57 per hour or $55,260 salary annually. Nationwide, the average hourly wage was $23.23, or $48,320 annually.

San Luis Obispo County’s numbers aren’t surprising, said Mike Manchak, CEO of Economic Vitality Corp. of San Luis Obispo County. The region has long been characterized by lower wages than the rest of the state, coupled with relatively higher living costs.

San Luis Obispo County was even named by national real estate firm RealtyTrac as the sixth most unaffordable place to live in the United States, using the same U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and comparing that with the cost of an average-priced home.

The report found that 90.4 percent of average weekly wages were needed to buy a median-priced home in San Luis Obispo County, compared with 84.5 percent in Monterey County and 72.4 percent in Santa Barbara County.

“While our region is highly competitive compared to the Bay Area, for example, when it comes to real estate prices and commute times, many people are unwilling to move to a smaller more rural environment because of a lack of job options,” Manchak said. “Particularly if the first job does not work out, there remain few alternatives in the same field.”

To remedy this, the region needs to address infrastructure issues such as water, the competitiveness of the airport, and workforce housing to attract more high-paying businesses, he said.

“We need to ensure there are enough job opportunities that allow for a deep talent pool to both work and live locally,” he said.

Tammy Aguilera, director of San Luis Obispo County Workforce Development Board had another theory for why San Luis Obispo County’s wages appear lower than statewide: tourism.

“When you have so many jobs in that field, it tends to drive the numbers down,” she said.

Noting the abundance of restaurants, hotels, wineries and tourism-based businesses in the county, Aguilera said, “All of those things that we love so much — that are uniquely SLO — those bring those numbers down. It’s a large amount of jobs, but the wages just aren’t that high. Which is why you have kids ... working at three restaurants at a time.”

With that in mind, the Workforce Development Board is looking to grow jobs in health care and technology, she said — both of which were among the higher paying fields in San Luis Obispo County in 2015.

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San Luis Obispo County versus California and the United States

All three of San Luis Obispo County’s highest-paid fields (management, legal, and architecture and engineering) fell below state and national averages.

The health care practitioners and technical occupations field — which includes the five highest paid jobs in the county — was only the fifth highest-paid sector in the county, with an average hourly wage of $41.06 per hour. The disparity is because the field includes professions like medical technologists and technicians, who earn $20 to $30 per hour on average.

Internists — the county’s single highest-paid occupation category, according to the data — on average earned $124.22 per hour in 2015, for annual salaries of $258,370. (That’s about nine times the $13.22 per hour average earned by people in retail sales, the county’s largest occupation with 4,800 workers.)

Workers in the local health care sector were generally paid less than in neighboring counties and less than the California average of $45.78 an hour — though still above the national average of $37.40 per hour.

The arts, design, entertainment, sports and media field had the most significant difference between state and national wages.

The 1,230 workers in that field — graphic designers, musicians, artists and writers — earned an average $22.06 an hour, or $45,890 annually — about 35 percent less than the California average and 19.4 percent less than the U.S. average.

Wages in the county’s largest field, office and administrative support, also fell below state and national averages in 2015: $16.84 per hour, or $35,030 annually, in San Luis Obispo County, compared with a state average of $19.31 per hour and national average of $17.47 per hour.

Workers in the lowest paid field in the county — farming, fishing and foresting — still fared better than their statewide counterparts in 2015.

In SLO County, workers in that field averaged $11.72 per hour, compared to a statewide average of $10.99. Still, that was less than the U.S. average of $12.67.

Jerry Rutiz, owner of Rutiz Family Farms near Arroyo Grande, said one reason is that the majority of farmworkers in SLO County are here year-round, not seasonally. Rutiz said he employs six farmworkers year-round, plus some seasonal workers through a labor contracting service.

“The people who work for us, they tend to stay here, and they tend to bring their families, and need to buy housing and live here and enjoy the area,” Rutiz said. “So we have to pay them more.”

Crops here tend to be more specialized, he added, requiring workers with more expertise who are compensated more for their specialized knowledge.

This could all change as the workforce continues to age, Rutiz said, with few new workers coming into the country to replace them, in large part because of the U.S.’s complicated guest worker policy. At the same time, an increase in the minimum wage and overtime compensation changes for farm workers will raise costs and affect hiring, he said.

“On the one hand, I think it’s time to do those things, they should get overtime and minimum wage, but give us immigration policy changes too,” he said.

The news isn’t all bad — some fields did slightly outperform the state and national averages.

Of the 22 distinct fields, San Luis Obispo County workers earned more than state and national averages in four fields: protective service occupations, food preparation and serving, personal care and service, and production occupations.

In protective services — police officers, detectives, firefighters and their supervisors — local workers earned an average of $29.15 per hour, or $60,640 annually. That was about 11 percent more than the state and 26.4 percent more than the U.S. averages.

Police departments must offer competitive wages to attract new people to the area, Pismo Beach police Chief Jake Miller said.

“I know when we have recruitment for lateral people outside the area and even folks just starting out, we have to really do the math and make sure they will be able to afford to live here,” he said.

In May, the Pismo Beach City Council approved a 5 percent equity pay increase for its police because salaries were about 7 percent less than the average, which hindered the department’s ability to fill open positions.

“When we hire from outside the area, people are looking for three things: wages, opportunity and the ability for career development; for within the area, it’s wages, opportunity and stability,” Miller said. “The Central Coast is a tough one.”

San Luis Obispo County versus its neighbors

San Luis Obispo’s wages fall midway between neighboring counties — higher in general than Monterey County and less than Santa Barbara County.

San Luis Obispo County’s average hourly wage of $22.13 and $46,040 annually compares favorably to Monterey County at $21.89 and $45,520. But it trails Santa Barbara County’s $24.71 per hour and $51,390 annually.

San Luis Obispo County performed better than neighboring counties in only one field: community and social service occupations. The field, with jobs such as drug and mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, and social workers, averaged a dollar more per hour here than in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties.

One of the biggest pay gaps was in management — San Luis Obispo County’s highest-paid field.

Those jobs, ranging from CEOs and managers to education administrators, paid an average of $46.61 per hour or $96,950 per year in SLO County. That’s about $4 less per hour than in Monterey County and nearly $12 less per hour than in Santa Barbara County.

Still, the three Central Coast counties all earned less than the California average of $61.02 per hour for management jobs. The national average was $55.30 per hour.

Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, has a theory for why San Luis Obispo County wages might be outpaced by its neighbors.

“I don’t think what you are seeing here is a difference in the labor market,” he said, “but a difference in the labor base.”

Thornberg said San Luis Obispo County competes with Santa Barbara, Monterey and Carmel, which have more wealthy, highly educated residents willing to pay more for services, driving up wages in those fields.

“Take, for example, a law firm in San Luis Obispo, Carmel and Santa Barbara,” he said. “Where do you think the higher-end one is going to be? It’s going to be where the demand for that sort of exclusive service is highest.”

Thornberg noted that San Luis Obispo County wages in industries that provide a good, such as construction, manufacturing and transportation were similar to those in Santa Barbara and Monterey counties. The differences become significant, he said, in service industries such as IT, professional and business services, education, health services, and leisure and hospitality.

According to Thornberg’s calculations, for example, in the information sector the average annual salary in San Luis Obispo County was $66,549, compared with $73,521 in Monterey County and $104,899 in Santa Barbara County.

Because Santa Barbara and Carmel are more established urban areas, it will take longer for San Luis Obispo County to catch up, he said.

“Carmel had Clint Eastwood as its mayor long before anyone knew anything about San Luis Obispo,” Thornberg said.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

How San Luis Obispo County’s pay compares

SLO County: $22.13 per hour on average/$46,040 annually

Monterey County: $21.89 per hour on average/$45,520

Santa Barbara County: $24.71 per hour on average/$51,390

California: $26.57 per hour on average/$55,260

United States: $23.23 per hour on average/$48,320