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Starting Salaries

Tailoring realistic expectations

By Molly Joss

Once you land your first job after college you will also earn your first bona fide paycheck. But before you get your hands on that envelope, you're going to have to negotiate a fair and realistic compensation package first.

To negotiate the best deal possible, you'll have to do some research on starting salaries for IT jobs similar to ones you'll be applying for, both on the national level and in the different geographical locations that you're considering. Average starting salary figures abound on the Web, and you can also get entry-level figures from recent grads and career counselors on campus. This type of casually gathered data is a great way to begin your research, but you need to do in-depth investigation in order to derive a realistic compensation figure for specific jobs. Without preparing such research, you could unknowingly accept a skimpy offer, or reject an offer only to find out later that it wasn't such a bad deal after all.

The best time to start digging for information on salaries and total compensation packages is while you're still in school and before you start your job search in earnest. You'll need to know more than the one-size-fits-all statistics. These numbers don't take into account other compensation factors, such as relevant experience (which can be a limiting factor if you don't have much), company size (larger companies tend to have larger hiring budgets), and location (you'll make more working in an urban area).

You will also need to find some reliable information sources that you can use once the job hunt gets serious. If you receive a job offer, you don't have to say yes immediately. In fact, it's typically a sign for caution if a company is pressuring you to accept an offer on the spot. It's a customary business practice to allow a potential hire to take a day or so to think about the offer. You should use that period to check your sources and evaluate the offer.

Keep in mind that a compensation package is worth more than the take-home pay alone.

The complete offer will include benefits such as 401(k) plans, and perks such as paid (or unpaid) vacation, paid sick leave and bonuses. Some companies even offer goodies like golf and health club memberships, company cars or continuing education reimbursement.

Rules of Compensation Etiquette

All relationships are governed by explicit and implicit rules. The relationship between job hunter and prospective employer is no different; it has its own set of conventions when it comes to when and how to discuss compensation for employment.

If you're working with a technical recruiter or placement officer, they will usually bring up salary range and benefits in preliminary talks by asking what you would like to have in order to take the job. They might ask for high and low range so they can avoid sending you on interviews for jobs that you might turn down because they don't pay enough. They might ask for a range, too, to see if your expectations are in line with their reality!

When you interview for a job directly with a company, salary and benefits details are rarely mentioned in advertisements or in the early interview stages. Some companies wait until they offer you the job to mention money at all. You should never ask about compensation until the employer mentions it. Before you begin discussing money and benefits, you should also be fairly certain you're interested in employment with the company. Discussing compensation before it's clear both parties are committed to moving forward with the hiring process is like asking for an engagement ring on the third date. Both are bold moves that might permanently frost what might have been a promising relationship.

The same go-slow policy applies to every portion of the total compensation package: benefits, vacation time, bonus plans and so forth. Make sure the prospective employer understands what they would gain by hiring you and that you're interested in the job before you even mention what you want or expect.

Since compensation is a topic that isn't broached until the employer is ready, use your research to help you decide if you want to pursue a job beyond the initial interviews. Be sure, though, to factor in the possibility of taking a job to get some experience even if the initial compensation offer turns out to be less than you'd hoped.

Counter Offer

When you get an offer, take some time to reflect, check your sources and then respond. Consider a modest counter proposal even though this is your first job. If you've done your research ahead of time, you will know how much more you can reasonably ask for.

Make sure your counter proposal is equitable and that you have research to back up your request. You don't need to share your data points with the company, but having them with you will help you feel more confident. They will also help you from asking for unrealistic benefits or dollar amounts. Asking for much more than the going rate will make you look greedy and uninformed, but accepting the first offer, especially if it is particularly low, can make you appear naove.

Some companies offer lower salaries or don't mention some possible benefits because they expect a candidate to make a counter offer and they want some room to negotiate. If you accept the first offer, you may be settling for less than you deserve for the entire time you work there. Since salary increases are often done on a percentage basis, you want to get the highest possible starting salary and the best benefits package you can get right from the beginning.

Finally, beware of vague promises of better compensation at some unspecified point in the future. Merit and cost-of-living raises of a few percentage points are the norm these days. Huge pay raises when (or if) the company has a good quarter or year are not the standard compensation practices, especially for new employees, even if you're working for a start-up company.

Starting Salaries on the Rise

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Winter 2005 issue of Salary Survey, the national starting salaries for computer science graduates averaged $51,042, which was almost five percent better than last year's average offer.

Information sciences and systems grads were a few thousand dollars behind computer science grads with an average offer of $43,741. The NACE Salary Survey also reported increases in average starting salaries for engineers: $43,159 for civil engineering graduates (a 5.1% increase), $53,659 for chemical engineering graduates (a 2.1% increase) and $51,113 for electrical engineering graduates (1 2.4% increase).

NACE said later in the year that 2005 should offer improved job opportunities for new graduates. That means more companies are planning to hire recent college graduates; most of the new jobs will be created because companies are expanding their internal labor pool. New average salary figures for 2005 will be available from the organization in the spring, but the numbers will probably indicate 2005 starting salaries will be about four percent higher than 2004 salaries.

Robert Half Technology, a major IT recruiting and placement firm, also follows the computer job market and issues projections periodically. According to a poll the firm conducted recently, "11% of executives polled plan to add IT staff early next year and two percent anticipate cutbacks. The net nine percent hiring increase is up three percentage points from the previous quarter's forecast and six percentage points ahead of the year-ago projection."

Unlike NACE, Robert Half is not so bullish about increases in starting salaries for IT professionals. In its 2005 salary guide, the company says it sees only a half percentage increase in these salaries versus 2004 with greater percentage increases in highly sought after specialties such as information security and quality assurance.

Talking about national average starting salaries, the guide says that systems auditors can expect the highest jump in base compensation expected to rise 5.1%, to the range of $63,250 to $81,750 annually. Here are a few other starting salary figures from the guide:


  • "Quality assurance/testing managers will earn average starting salaries of between $64,750 and $86,750 annually, a gain of 2.2% over 2004.
  • Network security administrators can expect base compensation in the range of $63,750 to $90,500, an increase of 2.3% over 2004 starting salaries.
  • Business systems analysts will see starting salaries increase 1.9% to the range of $56,000 to $80,500 per year.
  • Average starting salaries for Internet/intranet administrators will decline 1.2%, bringing base compensation to the range of $48,250 to $70,750 annually.
  • Base compensation for desktop support analysts will decrease 3.8%, with starting salaries in the range of $44,500 to $63,250."

Do Your Homework

National averages take into account jobs in urban areas where compensation is usually double-percentage points higher than in rural areas. While such figures can be exciting to contemplate, it's important to keep in mind that they can obscure your take-home pay reality. Compensation levels vary widely from region to region in the United States, so even if your paycheck is on the high side, it might be a result of living in an urban area where cost-of-living expenses require a larger salary.

You can get a copy of the latest Robert Half Technology Salary Guide by visiting www.roberthalftechnology.com and filling out a request form online. The Guide breaks down the national numbers into regional format. You can also spend some time online with the salary research tools at computer job and general job search sites such as Computerjobs.com and Monster.com.

When you do research, look at the differences between the same kind of jobs, but vary as many of the following search parameters as the sites allow: region of the country, setting (urban, suburban and rural), company size, number of employees, scope (international, national, regional or local), and for- or non-profit. Such sites offer other resources, such as Monster's salary negotiation message board where you can post questions about the fairness of a specific offer.

Don't forget to use your university career center and alumni network as resources; they can be invaluable. Ask if you can post a message on the alumni listserv to get information about prospective employers and compensation packages on a national or regional level or in a particular industry. Such information can be quick and easy to obtain, yet is priceless.

Whenever you post an information request on a site-be it external or internal to the college or university-do not mention the name of the company or other explicitly identifying information. Keep your personal opinions about the offer to a minimum. You never know who is reading the posts, and you could potentially offend someone important to your job quest. You might also be giving the company's competition valuable information.

Preparation Pays in the End

Collect as many data points about compensation as you can before, during and after you've gotten your first job. Use the information sources you gather to aid in your quest. Being informed about what is fair, reasonable and customary when it comes to compensation will help you make the most of every job, including your very first one.

Molly Joss is an IT veteran who writes about career and job issues, among other topics of note.

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