Britain's Most Overpaid Jobs

Look, it's really not just jealousy, but have you noticed how some individuals and some occupations seem to be making much more money than they deserve? Rhymer Rigby names a few.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

How many times have you heard the refrain 'They're so overpaid'?

Yet most of the time they aren't really. For example, as much as people gripe about City boys and girls, they too could join this pinstriped posse if they were prepared to work long hours in a macho culture at a job that manages to be simultaneously stressful and boring. So most City jobs, while very well paid, are not necessarily overpaid.

Nor, for that matter, are many more of the usual suspects. Charles Dunstone, Richard Branson, James Dyson and, for that matter, almost all entrepreneurs, have created some- thing out of nothing and taken huge risks on the way.

The've earned their squillions. Even top footballers who, in most cases, have talents that the rest of us can only dream of are not paid too much either. They are simply reaping the benefits of market capitalism whereby you are likely to be better paid than those less able.

But there are instances where you just can't explain it through recourse to the glib theories of Adam Smith and his 21st-century acolytes. For example, when people of equal ability earn stacks more than those doing near-identical jobs, or people who are rewarded as great risk-takers when the risks they take are someone else's; worse still, those who are rewarded handsomely for failure. Some of our infamous fat cat execs are overpaid by any yardstick. The problem with Cedric Brown, the former British Gas boss and progenitor fat cat, was that he was a bureaucrat rewarded for being an entrepreneur, a situation exacerbated by his apparent belief that he deserved to be.

Many of these problems, says Nick Isles, deputy director of advocacy at the Work Foundation, stem from the prevalent 'winner takes all' attitude to pay. Boosted by agents, headhunters and the like, successful individuals wind up with pay packets that reflect only the presence of an upward spiral, driven by interested parties.

'Plus,' he adds, 'high pay is also a bit like a club - once you're over the threshold, you're in forever. Look at Kevin Keegan. Despite successive failures, his salary goes up every time he moves.' The winner-takes-all attitude, he adds, is now creeping into other sectors, leading to weirdly pernicious effects. For example, the chiefs of charities who command hundreds of thousands while their workforce get by on very modest salaries, boosted only by the belief that it's all in a good cause.

As might be expected, the Adam Smith Institute's director, Dr Eammon Butler, takes a robust view. 'I believe that competition will out. Though if you look at some of the financial services, they are deeply regulated, which adds a lot of cost and barriers to entry, so overpay can occur.

But as long as competition is allowed to work, people should be paid what they are worth.' Even he allows that there may be problems in one notably unregulated market, though. 'With estate agents it can be a little less obvious exactly what you are paying for.'

So, bearing in mind distorted markets, wage spirals, naked greed, elitist clubs and places where everyone just agreed something felt wrong, here at MT we've looked to a variety of sources - including input from remuneration consultants - to bring you our list of Britain's 10 most overpaid jobs.

Whether you fancy a change and are looking for the most lucrative new career, or you just want to have your suspicions confirmed that you aren't paid enough, you'll find plenty of interest here.

HIGH-END ESTATE AGENTS

As staff at Savills recently demonstrated, to be an upmarket estate agent is a wonderful thing. Between them, the firm's members are supping from a bonus pool worth £40 million. And top earners at the firm are likely to pocket bonuses worth close to a million pounds this year.

Savills' dosh has come largely from commercial property. But residential sellers have done handsomely too. Most estate agency works on a percentage of the price of the property sold, typically 2%. It doesn't take a genius to work out that over a period of intense house price inflation, estate agents can make an embarrassment of riches. Two per cent of £250,000 is very nice at £5,000, but 2% of £1,500,000 is £30,000. In contrast, solicitors' hourly rates and mortgage fees have remained pretty flat over the past 10 years.

As if this were not enough, what the estate agent 'does' can involve little more than taking pictures of house interiors and writing descriptions.

If the market is booming, slack agents will often send prospective purchasers to view unaccompanied. And, in such a market, it is often a case of simply picking the highest bid. It is perhaps unsurprising that customer complaints have gone through the roof.

Of course, some estate agents provide an excellent service, but even then it is difficult to see why they are rewarded like bank robbers when the risk is borne entirely by the seller.

URBAN TRADESMEN

An old dinner party conversation staple - and one with added piquancy when the chattering classes at the table realise that their tradesfolk may earn more per hour than they do. The problem here is that Britain has a chronic shortage of plumbers (we need 29,000 more) and tradesmen (a further 40,500 are required). Combined with heavy demand - especially from the public sector - this means that many tradesmen are on salaries that professionals would envy: £52,000 a year is not unusual for brickies, while electricians and plumbers may command even more. Last year, jobs for electricians to work on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link paying £75,000 a year were advertised. Indeed, such is the allure of well-remunerated manual labour that there is at least one case of an Oxford graduate swapping her mortarboard for a blowtorch.

Yet these figures hide disparities - for according to the Institute of Plumbing, the average plumber earns a modest £30,000-£40,000 a year. And, in less prosperous parts of the country with lower levels of construction activity, they earn rather less.

But the fact remains that the reason you hear so many people bitching about £200 call-out fees and £100 per hour rates is because they happen so often. One West London plumber, who reckons to earn about £100,000 a year, says: 'Mate, I charge whatever I reckon people will pay. And if you've got a burst pipe at midnight, you'll pay anything.' Other cases of extreme 'distress' charging unearthed by MT include £200 an hour (£3 a minute) for a locksmith on a Sunday, and £600 for an hour and a quarter's work clearing a blocked drain in the middle of the night. Worse examples to the usual address, please.

CEOS OF FAILING COMPANIES

Some of the flack that British CEOs get for their salary packets is unfair, based on envy and a limited public understanding of how executive remuneration works. But when everything (share price, workforce numbers, profits, etc) is heading south and the CEO's salary is still heading north, there is nothing to understand. He or she is being rewarded for failure, and overpaid in a way that is an insult to both the company's investors and its employees.

A few examples: Sir Peter Bonfield walked away from BT with a payoff worth £3 million, having presided over a share price slide of 71.4%; Ian Harley picked up £1.7 million after dropping a £1 billion loss on Abbey's investors; and Shell's Sir Philip Watts ratcheted up a 55% increase in basic pay, while company profits fell by a quarter. He then, of course, walked the plank.

Other reasons for righteous disgust include overstuffed final-salary pension schemes, ridiculous notice periods, and the practice of benchmarking pay against international markets even when the company's activities are largely confined to the UK.

The defence to all this usually boils down to that old truism 'to get the best you must pay the best'. But many of those who advance this argument are themselves underperformers.

This hypothesis becomes even more specious when you look at the other end of the pay spectrum, at chief execs who scrape by on a paltry few hundred thousand. Here you will discover that many of these rather leaner cats have - despite the absence of stratospheric rewards - managed to outperform their sectors and even to create some shareholder value.

PRIVATE SURGEONS

When private patients ask: 'What's up, Doc?', the response might well be: 'My fees'. Research published late last year by National Economic Research Associates (NERA) revealed that NHS consultants charge up to 60% more than the international average for a variety of private operations - more, incidentally, than their counterparts in the US.

The report looked at the specialist fees charged for various operations in the UK, the US, Germany, Spain, Canada and Australia. It found that UK consultants were paid 22% more than the average for a hip replacement, 35% more for hysterectomies and repairs to hernias and piles, and nearly 60% more for heart bypasses and cataract and tonsil removal. It should come as no surprise, then, to discover that the £1 million-a-year doctor has been with us for some time now and that a far greater number earn over £500,000 per year.

NERA - and indeed consultants themselves - point to a distorted market as the reason for this. Consultants have to commit a large proportion of their time to the NHS, which limits the supply to the private sector.

Couple that with the fact that demand for operations is relatively price-insensitive, and that GPs (who have no vested interest in the cost) do the referring and you have a recipe for overpaid overtime. A case of private surgeons taking more than their fair cut.

CELEBRITY CHEFS, HAIRDRESSERS, ETC

Perhaps you remember a time when chefs ran restaurants and hairdressers ran hairdressing salons, and if they made a name for themselves, they did the same but charged more and attracted a better clientele.

No longer: now they make a name for themselves and then endorse products.

And pretty soon, cooking or hairdressing are entirely peripheral to their income streams and done only to keep the brand - their name - going. To be sure, you might expect a chef to write a book or even appear on TV, but, not content with this, many slap their faces on thousands of ready meals or go on to endorse a supermarket where they would never shop in a million years.

Of course, you could argue that the fault is the public's for buying this tat. But it is equally true that if you get millions simply to put your name to a product largely unrelated to your 'talent', you are being overpaid. And this is doubly so if you can't even cook or cut hair particularly well, which is also true in some cases.

Worse, as if this group weren't paid enough, some of its number have a nice sideline in after-dinner speaking and appearances. People used to be famous because they were special, now they're special because they're famous.

ORCHESTRAL SOLOISTS

Premier league classical soloists usually get as much as the rest of the orchestra combined for a concert performance. While a soloist might be paid £8,000 (and it can be far more), the rest (typically about 80 musicians) will get £100 apiece; even the principal first violin pockets only £200 to £300. Violinist Maxim Vengerov is reputed to receive $50,000 for putting bow to string in public - that's more than $1,000 a minute.

This is a level of disparity rare even in professional sports, but what makes it truly iniquitous is that seat receipts do not even cover the cost of the musicians' wages.

Almost all orchestras are subsidised, usually through a mixture of corporate sponsorship and public money. And although there's nothing wrong with taxpayers subsidising a living wage for musicians, most of us might balk at paying one musician 80 times a living wage, 20% of which goes to an agent.

Fortunately for soloists, this perverse market operates almost everywhere.

So if we want to see the best in this country, we will have to keep paying the going rate.

AFTER-DINNER SPEAKERS

What do you fancy after dinner? Dessert, cognac, maybe a cigar - or how about £20,000 for an hour of your time? This is how much some celebrities charge to add their prestige and glamour to workaday events like trade association shindigs and awards do's. Former US President Bill Clinton trousers a whopping $100,000-plus per speech, but at least he was once the most powerful man in the world. Many far less brilliant luminaries do handsomely, too: John Major charges $46,000, David Frost £25,000 and Carol Vorderman £20,000. So well remunerated is this that practitioners know it as 'the bank raid'.

Better known in the business world is the after-dinner speaker's cousin, the motivational speaker. American guru Tom Peters, king of this hill, picks up an eye-popping £60,000 for an evening's work, putting fire in the sales team's belly. Someone like Kevin Keegan (yes, him again) or super-Olympian Sir Steve Redgrave could expect to take home between £10,000 and £15,000 for a similar bash.

For less, you get people who aren't even slightly famous. 'A lot of the motivational speaking circuit shouldn't be there,' says Jeremy Lee of speakers' agency JLA. 'They're nobodies jumping on the bandwagon.' And they can earn up to £2,000 a time. It's money for old rote.

COMMERCIAL BARRISTERS AND QCs

Gordon Pollock, QC, is to earn the highest legal fee in history - £5 million - for presenting the case against the Bank of England brought by BCCI creditors. Meanwhile, we have Baron Grabiner, a commercial silk who has represented the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell and earns more than £2 million a year: he charges £1,000 an hour for his services.

All lawyers can earn pretty good money and perhaps deserve to - after all, they have to spend years on a pittance serving their articles or attending dinners. But the rewards for being called to the Bar - never mind taking silk like Pollock and Grabiner - are disproportionate. A survey of the 10,000 barristers in private practice some years ago for trade magazine The Lawyer indicated that those in family, criminal and common law usually earned between £125,000 and £400,000 a year. But 32 earned more than £1 million a year, most of them corporate and tax specialists.

A later survey (2002, BDO Stoy Hayward) showed that since 1999 receipts from criminal and family law work had stayed flat, but that commercial and chancery receipts had risen by 33%. Because of their higher profiles, it is criminal barristers whose earnings receive most public criticism - especially as they are often being paid out of the public purse. But it is commercial silks, working quietly away at a very similar job, who make out like bandits.

FUND MANAGERS

If fat cats fill us with righteous disgust, at least they have the decency to do so in the open. But, in a curious way, some of their shareholders are worse than they are. We're talking about the institutional fund managers, who control vast chunks of the nation's equity and so are in a position to kick up a meaningful fuss about the executive gravy train. Trouble is, they're on it as well. And while they're picking up big money, too many of the investment portfolios they manage have been performing terribly.

Just ask anyone with a pension from Equitable Life.

A survey by McKinsey showed that not only do most fund managers get a salary into six figures, but they can expect hefty bonuses even as they lose investors' money. All they have to do is better than average and the rewards can be spectacular - even if the average is bad and they do only a little better. Lose money and you might get only £350,000; actually make some and you could be looking at £600,000.

It can be even higher: last year, for instance, three fund managers at Hermes shared £5.1 million, despite falling markets. In a bull market, these salaries can run into eight figures. This despite the fact that fund managers' 'intelligent' investment decisions are frequently bettered by computerised tracker funds, which blindly follow the FTSE indices.

Best of all, funds are usually hidden away from sight and, as part of larger businesses, need not declare their managers' salaries. As a result, few people realise that some of the fattest cats of all are looking after their pensions.

SIDELINED FOOTBALL PLAYERS

Since being signed by Chelsea on 31 August 2000, centre-back Winston Bogarde has made just 12 appearances, eight of them as a substitute, so he has started only four matches. All the while, he has been paid £42,000 a week. Even if it wanted to, Chelsea couldn't have got rid of him without a big bill, thanks to his four-year deal, which expires later this season.

Bogarde is just one of many overpaid, under-worked footballers. Jamie Redknapp commands more than £30,000 a week and yet he played only six games for Spurs last year. Leeds United veteran David Batty will continue to pick up his wages until his contract expires at the end of the season, despite being told that he won't be picked again this year. Explains Mat Snow, editor of Four Four Two magazine: 'Until the shock of the market partially melting down 18 months ago, any number of clubs were competing with each other to pay over the odds for dubious players. Clubs started bleating when they realised the sums were wrong, but if a sin was committed it was fully consensual.'

But thanks to harsh new economic realities, we are likely to see more prudence in future, largely because only Manchester United and Chelsea can afford this sort of thing now. It's as much as Leeds can do to pay YTS salaries.

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