Many San Diego high-tech workers were already making healthy salaries before the Great Recession — and now their sector is benefiting from some of the region’s largest salary hikes in the years since.

Meanwhile, workers in some low-wage industries have seen their pay hikes swallowed up by a rising cost of living.

The average San Diego County worker fell somewhere in the middle.

The latest government census of employers reveals the average San Diego County worker saw a roughly 22 percent increase in weekly wages from early 2009 to early 2014. That figure drops to just 10 percent when you factor in inflation.

Here’s what that looks like.

We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?


San Diego County’s average weekly wage was $918 in the first quarter of 2009 and rose almost $200 over the last five years, though inflation seriously cut into those earnings.

But not all San Diego industries are on the same page. Weekly salaries for workers in fast-growing technology sectors, particularly biotech, have boomed while those in industries like arts and entertainment, have essentially seen pay cuts. Employers in many other industries have handed out raises that barely keep pace with inflation or only slightly surpass it.

The latest joint state-Department of Labor Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages drives home the reality of the region’s growing hourglass economy, with the most significant job growth coming in industries that pay a lot or a little.

A similar pattern is playing out when it comes to wages: They’re getting higher at the top, and stagnating at the bottom.

I pulled the numbers for some of the region’s largest industries to see how wages have shifted.

First, let’s look at those with the most significant growth areas.

Most of the industries that saw big wage growth require technical skills and college degrees, in many cases even a Ph.D. (Hotel jobs were a surprising outlier.)

Biotech jobs, in particular, are paying a lot more than they did in 2009, even when you consider inflation.

The county’s added 1,465 pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing jobs since the beginning of 2009 and wages have since more than doubled for those workers.

Workers focused on scientific research and development, a category that includes many biotech employees, have seen a 50 percent spike in wages over five years.

Now let’s look at industries that are seeing negative wage growth.

Arts, entertainment and recreation jobs, which include covers everything from sports venues and theme park gigs to casino poker dealers, are paying 5 percent less today than they were in early 2009.

Meanwhile, retailers, bars and restaurants – which collectively comprise about 23 percent of local private-sector jobs – reported worker salaries that were 1 percent to 3 percent lower than five years ago.

All these numbers incorporate cost-of-living increases.

This basically means people who already took home healthy salaries pre-Recession are now making even more, and people who didn’t make much in 2009 are taking home less.

The simple economic principle of supply and demand is at play here.

The San Diego Workforce Partnership reported Thursday that San Diego’s biotech industry grew more than 45 percent from 2005 to 2013.

The job training group recently surveyed more than 130 biotech firms and heard many are having difficulty finding qualified candidates. This isn’t a new trend, said Jordan Levine, director of economic research at the Los Angeles-based Beacon Economics. Many biotech research jobs require a Ph.D. and specialized skills, and there aren’t many folks with the necessary training to apply.

“There isn’t this massive pool of individuals who are trying to find work in that sector,” Levine said.

That’s not the case for restaurant and retail jobs, where far more people are qualified even as the industries grow. Indeed, the region has added more than 550 food and drink businesses since 2009 – though they’re not necessarily motivated to pay their workers more.

This is part of our quest digging into the difficulties – real or perceived – of doing business in San Diego. Check out the previous story in our series, What We Mean When We Talk About San Diego’s Innovation Economy, and the next, San Diego to Incoming Businesses: Group Hug!

    This article relates to: Business, Economy, Government, News, Quest, Quest: Business Climate, Share

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about nonprofits and local progress in addressing causes like homelessness and Balboa Park’s needs. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at or 619.325.0528.

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    There seems to be a lot of controversy out there concerning the salaries and benefits of the government class of workers.  Your reporting could go along way to put facts and figures out to replace 1/2 truths and fictions that are feeding the fires of government disaffection.  There must be some fair way to present the data graphically. 


    Should've been more clear. Answer is in the comments. RT @McSwainUT I must be having a bad morning; can't find govt workers in this story.

    john stump
    john stump subscriber

    vor73 may be on to something with his inquiry as to city , schools and other government workers' pay as compared to the rest of us.  Every politician is constantly telling us that police, fire, or teachers are underpaid.  Let's see the data.  Please include median wages for these occupations as compared  to the rest of us.  Heck you might include the salaries for the Council too.

    If there are some challenges with high risk occupations please include some similar active duty military positions in your comparisons.

    Charts that do not present a standard or a measuring median are difficult to understand. Please keep up the good work

    vor73 subscriber

    My interest is piqued on why you didn't include government jobs in here and add them as another market segment to be studied. 

    Or perhaps you're planning a follow-up article studying only government jobs and wages, broken down by entity/jurisdiction. If not, I would ask that you research and present such an article focusing on the public sector, so readers can get a tangible view to contrast how public employees are doing compared to private-sector employees. 

    Lisa Halverstadt
    Lisa Halverstadt authormember

    @vor73 Thanks for the question.

    My project is about San Diego's business climate so I focused my analysis on private sector jobs.

    But I did pull some numbers on local government wages. The average wage has risen from $974 a week in 2009 to $1,043 in 2014. That's technically a 7 percent increase but all of it was eaten up by the cost of living. On average, local government employees are actually making about 3 percent less today than they did in early 2009 when you factor in inflation.

    Retiredguy53 subscriber

    PEPRA (for state and CalPers local agencies), and Prop B significantly reduced or eliminated (for Sd city) pensions for government employees.  So since 2009 if you factored that in it would show a great reduction in income for government workers.  

    Lisa Halverstadt
    Lisa Halverstadt authormember

    @Michael Robertson @vor73 These averages do incorporate both full and part-time workers.

    Pensions aren't factored in for the private sector but I'm not certain about whether they're added into the weekly wages for the public sector. I'll call the California Employment Development Department about that if I decide to do any additional reporting on this.

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    Pensions are mostly nonexistent in private industry. There may be some remnants in old time industries like newspapers. For govt workers it is just the opposite.

    Any compensation comparison between free market workers and government workers without pension data would be very misleading.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Robertson: I challenge your sweeping statement that, "Pension benefits are enormous." What does "enormous" mean when broken down? Like Social Security, government pension benefits are guaranteed at a set level. All private employers pay into Social Security (6.2%), so on the cost end the relative difference in this defined benefit retirement is the difference in the amount of money put into the pension by the employer, if any. Government employers typically do not pay into Social Security because they have replaced it with government pensions. One must also consider the 401(k) benefits, profit sharing, etc. that are often part of the benefit mix in the private sector, but unusual or nonexistent in the public sector.

    I appreciate that you wish to perpetuate the drumbeat that government workers, when pensions are included, are overpaid. What this story demonstrates, in my view, is that government pay tends to lag in a booming economy and remain steady in a down economy (when private sector income may decline). In my observation that has always been the case.

    One final note: The average general employee retirement allowance for City of San Diego employees is less than $35,000 annually – with no Social Security – after working for the city for nearly three decades.  Employees also contributed a big portion of every paycheck toward their retirement, just like private sector employees do for their retirement. Not exactly a Cadillac retirement.

    vor73 subscriber

    My interest is piqued on why you didn't include government jobs in here and add them as another market segment to be studied. 

    Or perhaps you're planning a follow-up article studying only government jobs and wages, broken down by entity/jurisdiction. If not, I would ask that you research and present such an article focusing on the public sector, so readers can get a tangible view to contrast how public employees are doing compared to private-sector employees.