Average Salary: Working in Iraq Worth the Risks?

It might surprise most Americans to learn that there are over 25,000 private contractors in Iraq. These contractors make up the third largest international force in the war-torn country, behind U.S. military and U.K. troops. For this reason, private contractors are often called the “shadow army in Iraq .”

Many jobs that were traditionally performed by the U.S. military – truck driving, security, laundry and food services – have been farmed out to private contractors. The idea is if these military jobs are “outsourced” to contractors, then the U.S. military is freed up for armed conflict.

According to our PayScale salary survey, the average wages for truck drivers in Illinois are around $45,000. If that same trucker works for a private contractor in Iraq, he will reportedly have a starting salary range of $100,000, but are the dangers worth it?

Private Contractor Tactical Training

Private contractors in Iraq, such as truck drivers wear only a flak jacket as they face ambushes, machine gunfire and improvised explosive devices along the roads. Trucks may also not have armor, adding more risk to this high salary range position.

Driving a truck in Iraq is a high risk, high salary range job.  There is a big difference in risk between typical high risk jobs like fishing in the gulf of Alaska and working in a hot war zone. Below I will look at each extreme, and see how different risks change the calculation for truck drivers in Iraq.

Private Contractor vs Household Employee

Risk/reward is a tricky calculation, and human beings are generally very bad at estimating the cost of risk. For example, is it a good deal for a 30-year-old truck driver with a family to support to go to Iraq for an extra $50,000 a year? Assume he could have worked another 35 years for an average salary of $45,000/year. If he dies in Iraq, his family loses 35 x $45,000 = $1.5 million in income.

This is where the tricky risk calculations come in. Say he plans to stay in Iraq for 2 years, bringing home an extra $100,000:

  • If his risk of death is 1.5 in 1000 per year (same as fishermen), the “expectation value” of the future income he risks losing is 2 years x 0.15% x $1.5 million = $4,500. Given he would earn $100,000, this looks like a risk worth taking.
  • If the risk is 10X that of fishermen, then he risks 2 x 1.5% x $1.5 million = $45,000. This is no longer a slam-dunk deal; the truck driver is now only making a little more than twice what he is risking.
  • If the risk is 100X that of fishermen (15% a year), he is risking $450,000 to earn $100,000. This is not the way to make more money for his family.

Above Average Wages for Truck Drivers, but…

Death isn’t the only possible outcome. The US troops are injured at roughly 8X the rate they are killed in Iraq. If the truck driver is injured so that he no longer can work, his family still loses his future income.

How likely is the worst (15%) case above? For comparison, the US had an average of about 150,000 ground troops in Iraq during 2005. About 6800 were injured or killed that year. This is a casualty rate of 4.5%. If truck drivers in Iraq have the same risk, then the truck driver from Illinois is risking $135,000 in future income to earn $100,000 extra.

Halliburton Jobs in Middle East, Legal Recourse?

Life insurance for someone working in a war zone is hard to get, and the truck driver’s family is unlikely to have other legal or financial redress like workman’s compensation. For example, a lawsuit against Halliburton brought by the families of truckers killed in an ambush near Baghdad, in April 2004, was thrown out of court.

In the ruling, U.S. District Judge Gray H. Miller said that the U.S. military played a major role in sending the convoy and that it was not the court’s place to second-guess the Army’s orders. “The contracts show that the Army, not the defendants, was responsible for the security of the convoys,” Judge Miller wrote.

Overtime Payment Government Contract?

Another downside is that there is no overtime pay for private contractors in Iraq. In a class action lawsuit against Halliburton for overtime, workers claimed that they were working more than 100 hours a week and not receiving overtime, even though a Pentagon contract called for overtime pay in Iraq.

However, U.S. District Court Judge Melinda Harmon ruled that Halliburton did not have to pay overtime, because U.S. laws governing military contracts say that only workers employed inside the United States are subject to US overtime pay laws.

Personally, if I were the truck driver, I would go back to school and learn to be a Clinical Research Associate. According to PayScale salary survey data, this job pays an average salary of $50,000 to start and can be over $90,000/year with 10 years of experience. The biggest risk is a paper cut.

How does your salary rank against the contractors in Iraq? Is it time to move to Baghdad, or stay home? Find out with our salary calculator.


Dr. Al Lee