15 Highest Paying Jobs in California

portrait of Heather Mullinix
by Heather Mullinix
Published on November 11, 2021

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In California, job seekers enjoy a thriving economy, great weather, and scenic beauty from the Pacific Coast Highway to the Sierra Nevada mountains. The state boasts the largest economy in the United States — and one of the biggest in the world — with a gross domestic product of over $3 trillion as of 2020. It leads the nation in farm production and exports of computers, vehicles, and pharmaceuticals.

However, the average cost of housing in the state is much more expensive than the national average. You need to earn more than $80,000 a year — $150,000 in Los Angeles — to afford housing, savings, and incidentals in several communities. Consider these top-paying jobs in California. They offer salaries that allow Californians to thrive in their communities.

Working and Living in California

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average annual income for a single person living in California was $36,960 in 2019. The median household income was $75,240 a year. Overall, the state's cost of living exceeds the national average by about 50%, primarily due to housing costs.

MIT economists estimated that a single adult with no children needed to earn a minimum of about $39,000 a year to live in California in 2019. According to the California Legislative Analyst's Office, residents spent more than one-third of their income on rent in 2016.

Living expenses also vary by location. According to the 2020 Census, San Francisco residents reported a median household income of $112,450, a median home value of more than $1 million, and median rent prices of $1,895 a month in 2019. About two and a half hours from San Francisco, Clearlake residents reported a median household income of $31,550. The median home value in the city was $110,500, and the median rent was $860 a month.

The 2020 Census found suburbs are growing faster than the state's metropolitan centers. Vernon, a city of 55,000 residents outside Los Angeles, grew by over 98% in the last 10 years. Unemployment rates vary by region, as well. In 2015, the state reported a range of unemployment from over 3% to nearly 12%, with the highest rates in the Central Valley.

As you begin your California job search, look for communities with affordable housing, a growing job market, and career opportunities among the highest paying jobs in California. Once you find positions you want to pursue, check out this guide to help you start your new career.

What Are the Highest-Paying Jobs in California?


Lawyers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $165,310

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 8%

Lawyers may work in a group practice or their own office. They represent various clients in legal matters, researching relevant laws and regulations and preparing legal documents. They may represent clients in court for civil or criminal matters. Becoming a lawyer requires earning a Juris Doctorate degree, which requires about three years of education after earning a bachelor's degree. In California, prospective attorneys must attend an approved law school and pass the state's Bar Exam. About 16,000 prospective attorneys take this each year.


Air Traffic Controllers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $156,920

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 4%

Air traffic controllers play a critical role in the safety of air travel. As flight traffic increases, airports need more of these professionals. They monitor aircraft both on the ground and in the flight by issuing instructions for take-off and landing and help pilots navigate around severe weather or airport closures. Most work for the federal government as part of the Federal Aviation Administration. The career requires a bachelor's degree or three years of work experience, the passage of a physical exam, and the successful completion of a behavioral consistency exam. Look for aeronautics programs approved by the Air Traffic Collegiate Training Initiative.


Nuclear Engineers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $154,040

2020-2030 Job Outlook in the U.S.: -8%

Nuclear engineers work in nuclear power plants, manufacturing facilities, or research centers. They design equipment, write operational instructions, direct maintenance activities, and ensure the safety of workers and the community. Most entry-level positions require a minimum of a bachelor's degree in nuclear engineering, but many engineers pursue master's and doctoral degrees. Nuclear power remains a highly regulated field — the government limits the number of new power plants companies can build. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 900 openings each year nationwide to replace retiring workers.


Pharmacists

2021 Median Annual Salary: $152,780

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 6%

Pharmacists prepare medications according to physician orders. They may work in retail pharmacies, hospitals, or healthcare facilities. Compounding pharmacists create customized medications for patients with specific needs. Pharmacists must complete a doctoral degree in pharmacy and meet state licensing requirements. This degree typically requires four years of study beyond a bachelor's degree. Some positions in specialty areas require applicants to complete residency programs. While the BLS projects -2% growth for pharmacist positions nationwide between 2020 and 2030, jobs for these professionals in California are projected to grow by 6% between 2018 and 2028.


Forestry and Conservation Science Postsecondary Teachers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $151,570

2020-2030 Job Outlook in the U.S.: 12%

Postsecondary teachers may work in community colleges or universities teaching college-level courses. Forestry and conservation science teachers need a minimum of a master's degree, though many full-time postsecondary teachers pursue a doctorate in their field. Conservation scientists study the quality of forests, parks, and natural resources. They often ensure compliance with federal and state environmental regulations.


Compensation and Benefits Managers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $151,150

2020-2030 Job Outlook in the U.S.: 10%

These human resources specialists examine job descriptions and help companies maintain competitive wages and benefits to attract top talent. Compensation and benefits managers often must possess a bachelor's degree in human resources. They also need an understanding of employment laws and regulations. Benefits managers often research pay structures and analyze trends in pay and benefits to recommend changes to leadership. For example, they may offer guidance about paid parental leave or time off policies or advise the company in establishing employee wellness programs to reduce healthcare costs.


Financial Managers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $147,480

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 19%

Financial managers help companies and clients meet long-term financial goals. They also review financial data to find ways to save money, investment improvements, or business opportunities. Job titles may include controller, treasurer, risk manager, or insurance manager. These business leaders often have a minimum of a bachelor's degree. However, many pursue graduate degrees or professional certification, particularly in specialized finance areas like government accounting or investment banking.


Computer Hardware Engineers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $146,160

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 11%

These engineers develop new computer and technology hardware such as computers, phones, medical devices, and cars. Entry-level jobs often require at least a bachelor's degree in computer science or computer engineering, though many also require master's degrees. While hardware engineers may not develop computer software, these individuals need familiarity with coding to ensure systems work together. As more industries implement computer systems into products, the need for computer hardware engineers is projected to grow.


Dentists

2021 Median Annual Salary: $145,620

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 11%

Dentists diagnose and treat patients for oral disease, repair damaged teeth, and provide preventative oral care. Most work in dental offices, though some dentists open their own practices or work for government agencies. Dentists can practice general dentistry or specialize in areas of oral surgery, orthodontia, or prosthodontics. Dentists complete an undergraduate degree, a doctorate in dentistry, and post-doctoral training. They must meet state licensing requirements. An aging population and greater emphasis on preventative healthcare drive demand for dentists.


Advertising and Promotions Managers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $144,550

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 7%

Advertising managers oversee campaigns to drive interest in services and products. They manage budgets for campaigns that include a variety of media channels, like digital advertising, in-store displays, print advertising, or direct mail. They may develop pricing strategies, negotiate advertising contracts, and oversee creative departments. Advertising managers study advertising, marketing, or business. Most careers require a bachelor's degree. The BLS projects 31,100 job openings nationally each year between 2020 and 2030 to fill new positions or replace retiring workers.


Human Resources Managers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $143,360

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 12%

These business administrators work in every industry, leading efforts to recruit and retain a qualified workforce. They handle onboarding, ensure new employees receive training in company policy, and complete paperwork for benefit programs. They may mediate disputes or handle employee discipline. They may also take on internal communications to ensure employees receive timely updates on company changes or work with executives to plan for staffing needs. HR managers need a bachelor's degree in human resources or business management.


Purchasing Managers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $141,760

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 8%

Purchasing managers ensure companies have the supplies they need to deliver products or services promptly. They work closely with business vendors, overseeing purchasing contracts and quality specifications. They need skills in negotiation, data analytics, and communication. A bachelor's or master's degree in supply chain management or logistics can help applicants secure purchasing manager positions. While the BLS projects a national decline in employment between 2020 and 2030 for purchasing managers, in California, positions for these professionals are projected to grow 8% between 2018 and 2028.


Sales Manager

2021 Median Annual Salary: $138,390

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 7%

Sales managers oversee sales representatives or retail employees. They may provide training and coaching to help their teams meet sales goals. They analyze sales data to set goals for the sales team and determine product profitability. They develop plans to gain more customers through direct sales or in coordination with marketing and advertising departments. Most sales managers have a bachelor's degree in business, management, or finance.


Petroleum Engineers

2021 Median Annual Salary: $138,310

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: -4%

These engineers specialize in extracting gas and oil from underground reserves and delivering them to the market. They may develop plans for removing the resources or oversee maintenance and installation of equipment. They may also conduct tests to determine the best areas to drill to maximize production. Most petroleum engineers earn a bachelor's degree in mechanical or civil engineering and complement their education with internships or cooperative learning assignments.


Nurse Practitioners

2021 Median Annual Salary: $138,230

2018-2028 Job Outlook in California: 31%

Nurse practitioners can provide direct patient care, including preventative care, diagnosis of injuries or illnesses, or management of chronic conditions. Beginning in 2023, California nurse practitioners meeting education and certification requirements can practice independently of a physician. Nurse practitioners can specialize in pediatric medicine, maternal medicine, geriatric medicine, or other specialties. To start a career as a nurse practitioner, interested professionals must first become a registered nurse and then complete a master's degree in nursing. California and other states look to nurse practitioners to fill critical gaps in the healthcare system. They often provide care at lower costs than physicians.


Frequently Asked Questions About the Highest Paying Jobs in California

What is a good salary for California?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average annual income for a single person living in California was $36,960 in 2019, compared to the average national income of $34,103 per capita. However, the top 5% of households in the state earned about $425,000 a year in 2015.

A good salary covers your essential living costs, allows you to save for the future, and enables you to enjoy yourself with any money left over. California's cost of living exceeds the national average by about 50%. MIT economists estimated a single adult in the state needed $39,000 to cover basic expenses in 2019.

What is the minimum wage in California?

California increased its minimum wage to $14 per hour on January 1, 2021. This law applies to employers with 26 or more workers. Companies with fewer employees must pay a minimum of $13 an hour.

However, MIT economists have found the minimum wage does not cover essential living expenses. These expenses include housing, food, transportation, medical care, and taxes. According to MIT, $39,000 a year for a single person living in California counts as a living wage.

Can you live in California on minimum wage?

It depends on where you live. MIT economists estimate a single adult needs to earn at least $39,000 to afford basic living expenses in the state. However, the cost of living varies widely from large cities to small towns.

Many financial experts recommend you pay no more than 30% of your income on housing. However, the average single adult pays about $15,000 for housing costs in California, and those costs increase with household size. A household with two adults would need to earn at least $62,930.

What is the average cost of living in California?

California reports a cost of living index of 149.9. That's about 50% higher than the national average. Steep housing costs account for much of that higher cost of living. A two-bedroom apartment in the state costs an average of about $1,960 per month compared to $1,280 nationwide.

Residents of the state also pay more for transportation and groceries than the rest of the country. However, California reports a lower cost for healthcare.

Is $100,000 a good salary in California?

In many parts of the state, a $100,000 salary can allow you to live comfortably. But you need to choose your location well. According to PayScale, the cost of living in Los Angeles is 43% higher than the national average. The median rent for the city comes in at $2,470 per month.

PayScale reports that in Sacramento, the state's capital city, living costs are 17% higher than the national average. There, renters pay an average of $1,487 a month.

Find out about the fastest-growing careers in California. Choose a career that may provide ample opportunity in the future. Wondering which associate degree offers the biggest bang for its buck? Check out the 15 highest-paying associate degrees and the careers they can lead to. California boasts more colleges than any other state. But what are the best college towns in California? Learn more about our top picks.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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