Jealous of what everyone else earns? Don't be

How much does a plumber earn?

There's a good reason why we're jealous of what everyone else is earning - because we wildly over-estimate how much various professions are paid. A new study has found that we over-estimate salaries for some professions by almost a third, and as a result, we under-estimate the joy of our own pay packet. It means we risk changing careers in the hope of riches that never materialise.

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The study, by Oxford Open Learning, found the biggest discrepancy in what we think journalists are paid - compared to what they actually make. We assume they have an average salary of £30,000 - when in fact it's just £23,500 - 28% less. The next most over-estimated income is for plumbers, who we guess earn £30,000 - but who make £24,746.

Top five worst guesses
Journalist - we estimate £30,000 but they earn £23,500 - 28% less
Plumber - we estimate £30,000 but they earn £24,746 - 21% less
Solicitor - we estimate £60,000 but they earn £50,000 - 20% less
Hairdresser - we estimate £18,000 but they earn £15,473 - 16% less
Retail assistant - we estimate £15,000 but they earn £13,122 - 14% less

We get it wrong for lower paid professions - including florists, who make £15,926 (we guess £18,000). However, we get it just as wrong for very well paid jobs like Chief Executives, who earn £94,884 (we guess £100,000).

There are also a handful of professions for whom we underestimate the pay - and therefore the attractions of the job. They are:

Head of secondary state school - we estimate £50,000 but they earn £76,192 - 34% more
Train driver (not including London Underground) - we estimate £32,000 but they earn £47,000 - 32% more
HR manager - we estimate £35,000 but they earn £38,127 - 8% more
MP - we estimate £70,000 but they earn £74,962 - 7% more
NHS GP - we estimate £65,000 but they earn £69,514 - 6% more

Terrible mistake

And while the results are something of an eye-opener (who knew that train drivers were twice as valuable as nurses? Or that GPs make more than twice as much as teachers?), it also demonstrates the horrible mistakes we might be making when we weigh up a career change.

Career changes have never been so popular. According to a study by the Co-op, by the time we reach the age of 50, more than half of us have had at least three careers, and as many as 16% of workers have switched occupations after turning 45.

In many cases it's a matter of choice - and tailoring our career to our lifestyle. In an enormous number of cases, a career change is more a matter of necessity, as industries and jobs die away, and new areas spring up in their place.

When we are weighing up a new career, it's essential that we have realistic expectations of what we are getting into. Dr Nick Smith, Courses Director and founder of Oxford Open Learning Trust, said: "Among British workers, over half (52%) said that salary was an important factor when they chose their current job role. When it came to choosing a new career or job role, this figure increased to 68% - suggesting that monetary incentives are key for choosing a new career."

It goes to show how important it is to fully understand the earning potential of a job before we consider making a change, or starting training.

If this list is anything to go by, then once you exclude the very top jobs - and those requiring enormously expensive degree courses - life as a plumber, train driver or MP starts to look very attractive.

But what do you think? What's your ideal next career? Let us know in the comments.

The UK's 10 best-paid jobs
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The UK's 10 best-paid jobs

Flying high literally as well as metaphorically, pilots top the salary scale this year. There are various routes into the job, from university courses to airlines' own training schemes; private training will set you back as much as £50,000 to £60,000.

"I most enjoy the variety of the job, working as a team, to a schedule, with the responsibility of safely transporting hundreds of people to their destination. I would advise aspiring pilots to thoroughly research training routes, understand the serious financial outlay required with no guarantee of a job after training and to consider other routes such as flight instruction."

Not all CEOs are making millions - but they're doing pretty nicely on average. There's no clear route into the job; an MBA can help, but many bosses have worked their way up from the bottom and many simply started their own firm.

"There is an old saying, it's very lonely at the top, which is usually the case for a CEO. You're the leader and you're responsible for everything, meaning you take the credit for the successes and feel the most pain for the companies' failures."

Most air traffic controllers train through National Air Traffic Services (NATS), which has programmes for college leavers who have studied at BTEC ND/HNC/HND level, university students on a sandwich year and graduates. NATS says the most important attribute for acceptance on a course is natural aptitude.

"Much of the time, the job is routine and capable of being done by many people. What you are paid for, however, is your ability to make the right choices and decisions under extreme pressure."

The high pay reflects both the heavy workload and the length of training required - a five-year degree course in medicine, a two-year foundation programme of general training and then another three years specialist training.

"You will get paid well and (despite recent changes!) you will get a very good pension. You will, however, work hard for your money with less recognition than previous years."

This is a job where most people work their way up, although qualifications like the Chartered Institute of Marketing's Professional Diploma in Marketing or the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing's Diploma in Direct and Interactive Marketing can help. You'll probably need three or four years' experience before you can move into management.

"It's great working in such a varied job - there's something new every day. I enjoy the travel, too. But it's fast-paced, very hard work, and there's a lot of technical data analysis work involved."

It's not surprising that IT and telecoms directors earn good money. The job requires both business and technical skills, and the stakes are high: smoothly-running IT systems are crucial for most businesses and the cost of getting things wrong is high.

"It's a high-pressure job, and the hours can be unbelievably long, but it's extremely rewarding when a project goes well. The biggest problems are staying on top of changes in technology and being clear about what's actually achievable within a budget."

Financial managers and directors need to be qualified accountants and, particularly in larger organisations, have strong general business skills. And the job carries huge levels of responsibility, from keeping the company in good health financially to making sure it complies with the law.

"What I enjoy about the job is the way it's central to the business, the way I'm involved in creating long-term business plans. Compliance [with regulations] can be a bit of a pain; it takes a lot of hard work."

Until recently, the only way to become a senior officer was to work your way up through the ranks. Each police force sets its own recruitment process and selection policy, though there's a basic national framework for evaluating competency. This year, though, the College of Policing has started appointing superintendents from outside the force - so you might be in with a chance.

"I love the opportunity to take on a vast array of roles which would never be possible in a civilian organisation and to progress through a clearly defined promotion structure, should I prove to be good enough. The training I have received has been quite brilliant, enhancing my life skills as well as my ability to do my job well."

If your vision of a bank manager is of a middle-aged man in a panelled office dictating stern letters to his secretary, think again. It's now about managing a team and, especially, attracting new customers and monitoring branch performance. There are two ways to get to be one: either through a bank's graduate scheme, or by starting off in a customer service role and working your way up.

"For me, what's great about working in a branch is that anyone could be a branch manager, you don't have to have a certain skill set. Having a background in customer service, whether it's in a bank or with another retailer, certainly helps. Some other skills that would help are organisation, patience, tolerance and empathy. After 27 years I can genuinely say that that not only do I love coming to work every day, I have also made lifelong friends here. For me, it's not just a nine-to-five job."

Once you're qualified as a teacher, it's a question of working your way up by gaining extra responsibilities - by becoming a head of department, a head of year, or a specialist in something like special educational needs. At head teacher level, the job is far less about teaching itself, and far more about managing staff and budgets and creating a productive, disciplined learning environment.

"It's a common complaint that teaching is all about performance targets these days, and there is some truth in that. It's a question of balance, though. The most rewarding part of the job is knowing that you're bringing the best out of every single child by creating an environment where they feel safe and motivated to learn."

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