Wages Practically Stagnant for Non-Freelance US Translators and Interpreters in 2020

US Bureau of Labor Statistics releases 2020 data

After a tumultuous year, Americans are seeing signs that the US economy is improving fast, such as the lowest weekly count of new unemployment claims filed since the first wave of Covid-19 hit the US in mid-March 2020.

Globally, the Slator Language Industry Job Index (LIJI) climbed by almost seven percentage points in May 2021. This continues a four-month growth streak that reflects increased hiring in the language industry. The LIJI, established in July 2018, has risen nearly 44 percentage points to date since its all-time low in July 2020.

New data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (US BLS), however, shines a light on the fallout experienced by translators and interpreters (T&Is) throughout 2020. According to the US BLS’ annual Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), which tracks employment and wage estimates for over 800 occupations, earnings for T&Is were practically stagnant as of May 2020.

The May 2020 Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics data, released on March 31, 2021, comes from a semi-annual survey by mail of non-farm establishments, based on a list of employers maintained by State Workforce Agencies (SWAs) for unemployment insurance purposes. This means that the estimated 77,400 T&Is do not include freelancers or independent contractors, which make up a major segment of US language industry professionals. The category also includes sign language interpreters.

As of May 2020, the median annual pay for T&Is was USD 52,330 per year, up slightly from USD 51,830 in 2019. The median hourly rate increased from USD 24.92 to just USD 25.16. 

The lowest-paid 10 percent of T&Is earned less than USD 29,740, while the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than USD 96,480 annually. 

The top-paying states were Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, and California, where annual earnings ranged from USD 79,940 to USD 67,160, respectively.

Five of the top 10 highest-paying metropolitan areas for T&Is were in California: Santa Rosa; San Diego – Carlsbad; San Francisco – Oakland – Hayward; Santa Maria – Santa Barbara; and Riverside – San Bernardino – Ontario. California also employs an estimated 7,510 T&Is, more than any other state in the US.

Washington, DC had the highest concentration of T&I jobs, 1.23 per 1,000 jobs. It is also the epicenter of the highest-paying industry for T&Is (average annual salary: USD 87,410), the “Federal Executive Branch.” This OEWS designation does not include schools, hospitals, or the US Postal Service. Other top-paying industries include Computer Systems Services; Higher or Vocational Education; and Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals. 

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The US BLS also provides a comparison across similar occupations. On the upper and lower ends of the spectrum, technical writers earned a median salary of USD 74,650 in May 2020, while medical transcriptionists earned USD 35,270. The average annual salary across all occupations in May 2020 was USD 41,950.

Looking ahead, the US BLS is optimistic, anticipating a 20% increase in the profession (about 15,500 additional jobs) between 2019 and 2029, compared to 4% across all occupations.

“Globalization and large increases in the number of non-English-speaking people in the United States will drive employment growth,” the OOH states. “Job prospects should be best for those who have professional certification.”