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If you're a firefighter or a plumber – even a bank loan officer – the Buffalo Niagara region is an enriching place to work.

If you're a lawyer, an engineer or a computer whiz, not so much.

The federal government came out with a report earlier this month that found the average wages in the Buffalo Niagara region were 7 percent less than the national average, with local workers earning an average of $20.54 an hour, compared with $22.01 an hour nationally.

But if you take a closer look at the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you'll find that some occupations in the Buffalo Niagara region pay considerably more than the national average, while others pay a lot less.

The fields that paid the best, compared with the national averages, were concentrated in the protective services, construction and production industries.

Firefighters, for instance, earn an average of $54,510 a year here, which is 14 percent more than the national average. Police officers, who take home an average of $61,800 a year here, are paid about 7 percent more than their colleagues nationally.

This also is a good place to be a plumber or a pipefitter. Those workers earn an average of $56,190 a year here – 9 percent more than the national average.

It's a similar story for teachers – at least the ones who have full-time jobs and aren't in danger of losing them as enrollment drops and budgets get tighter. The $59,730 that the average elementary school teacher here earns and the $61,290 that a high school teacher earns on average both are 6 percent more than the national averages.

And, in a nod to the region's strong banking sector, loan officers here make about 14 percent more than their counterparts nationwide, earning an average of about $80,540 a year.

But for the most part, workers here earn less than the nationwide norm in their chosen field. Of the 22 major occupational groups singled out in the federal study, 14 of them paid less than the national average in the Buffalo Niagara region, and the gap was especially wide for people in the legal, computer and engineering fields, said Martin Kohli, the chief regional economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So computer systems analysts earn an average of $72,700 here and computer programmers make $63,760, both about 19 percent below the national average.

Engineering jobs pay well here, but not as much as other places. Electrical engineers earn an average of $82,790, or about 10 percent less than the U.S. norm. For civil engineers, the $77,390 they make here, on average, is 9 percent less than their colleagues across the country. Industrial engineers make about 11 percent less, earning $73,240 here.

The shortfall is especially steep for lawyers, who earn an average of $88,180 a year here. That's a third less than the national average of $130,880.

David J. McNamara, the managing partner at the Phillips Lytle law firm in Buffalo, said he isn't surprised by that. He thinks the national average is inflated by the super-high salaries that high-flying lawyers earn in money-center cities, like New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

“There are tiers within the market, and there are tiers within each market,” he said.

McNamara also doesn't think the lower attorney pay here is a big deterrent when it comes to convincing lawyers to practice here, especially after you factor in quality of life issues that weigh in Buffalo's favor and the fact that the lower costs here sometimes help local law firms win clients from outside the area.

“It's not a lousy place to be a lawyer,” McNamara said. “It's actually an exceptional place to be a lawyer because of the talent base here and the type of work we can do here.”

Younger lawyers often seek out jobs in higher-paying areas to help pay off their hefty student loan debt. But as they get older, they often look to places like Buffalo, where it's hard to put a dollar value on our 20-minute commutes and all the other family-friendly attributes we know so well.

In general, though, a lot of the wage differential also comes down to basic supply and demand. A tight market for a particular skill breeds higher wages, while employers can pay less when they have a stack of 100 resumes from qualified candidates for just a handful of open jobs.

The cost of living also plays a role. If you want to live in an expensive place like New York City, you have to earn a lot more to be able to maintain the same quality of life a smaller paycheck would provide in the Buffalo Niagara region, said John Slenker, the state Labor Department's regional economist.

“The cost of living does factor into it, because it's a price-setter,” he said.

That's one reason why wages in Allegany County, for instance, have historically been about 10 percent to 15 percent lower than in Erie County, Slenker said.

“It's a smaller county, not as much demand,” he said. Thomas Kucharski, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Enterprise business development and marketing initiative, views the region's lower wages as a selling point, especially compared with bigger, more costly cities.

“We rarely compete for a project with Rochester or Syracuse,” he said. “We usually compete for projects with those larger urban centers because we have the infrastructure of a larger urban center.”

And no matter where you work, the better you are at what you do, the more you'll make.

“If you're going to be an electrician, be a good one. If you're going to be a doctor, be a good one. If you're going to be a cook, be a good one,” Slenker said.

“It's just like my mother used to tell me,” he said. “Find a job that you like and become good at it.”

email: drobinson@buffnews.com