The Technical Communication Salary Survey
Why is it so difficult to get accurate information about technical communication salaries? When statistics are available, they seem inaccurate, on the low side. Until now, we have not had access to a survey of technical communication managers who can provide exact salaries of the technical professionals working in their departments.
In spring and early summer of 2000, the Center for Information-Development Management (CIDM) carried out just such a technical communication salary survey. This survey was sponsored by Sun Microsystems. It was intended to compare the salaries of technical communicators in the Bay Area and various other areas across the nation by actually interviewing the managers. In addition, the survey looked at the salary levels and classification of technical communicators as compared to software developers and covered areas related to compensation and hiring.
Participants were given the questionnaire in advance and had time to prepare for the interview, which was conducted by phone. A total of 55 information-development managers were interviewed. One of the survey goals was to have a good mix of high technology companies represented, including some of the new Internet and dot-com companies. Many major high-tech companies were included, as well as lesser-known, mid-size, and smaller companies.
The original plan was to concentrate our interviews in four or five geographical areas. However, we had more volunteers for participation in two states: California and Texas. The geographical breakdown of the companies by area is shown in the following chart.
Based on the data obtained, we found three distinct salary populations that we grouped together for much of the analysis: San Francisco Bay Area, Texas, and All Others.
Technical Status: To be or not to be “technical”
We wanted to find out if the designation of “technical” was correlated with salary. Do writers classified as technical make higher salaries?
All engineers/programmers in the companies represented in the survey are considered exempt and technical (100%). Technical communicators fall into the technical category in 78% of the companies, while 7% make no distinction between technical and non-technical employees. Only 15% of companies interviewed consider writers to be non-technical. All writers are exempt.
Our survey results found no significant difference between salaries of technical communicators designated as technical and those considered non-technical.
Another key issue is parity with programmer salaries. Thirty-seven percent of the managers interviewed stated that technical communicators in their departments had salary parity with software developers. This number contrasts with 27% who say that the two groups are in the same salary grade or scale, but that technical communicators are always paid a lesser amount. Thirty-six percent of the managers report that their technical communicators are not in the same salary grade as developers, and consequently have lower salaries. In the case of departments without salary parity, most of the managers indicated they were trying with some success to bring about parity.
Employee and Salary Information
Our salary survey covered information about employees, their jobs, and the departments in which they work, as well as specific salary information.
The managers we interviewed headed groups averaging about twenty people, no matter what the size of the company. (The actual range was from 2 to 200.) Many larger companies had a number of peer writing groups. All writing groups were involved with software, and some with hardware as well. The type of products documented varied considerably. They ranged from Internet, database, and financial software to biotechnology, telecommunications, networking, and enterprise management.
The location of the departments within the organizational structure of the company also varied, with a total of about 30% reporting to groups called either Software Development or Engineering, two different names for development groups.
We asked the managers to give us the average number of years of experience in the field for their writers. Experience is weakest in areas where competition for writers is greatest-in the Bay Area: 8.7 years, Texas: 9 years, higher for Illinois and Minnesota:11 years.
The educational level of technical communicators is quite high and appears to be increasing because more people with advanced degrees are entering the field. Most companies had 100% technical communicators with degrees, and a number of managers reported both technical degrees (CS, EE) and advanced degrees such as MA and PhD in their departments. Increasing technical education seems to be a trend, but few managers expressed interest in candidates with Technical Writing degrees.
The original three levels for technical communicators (Junior Technical Writer, Technical Writer, and Senior Technical Writer) have been greatly expanded. Now technical communication job grades parallel software development by having 4, 5, or even 6 grades. The average is 4.6 grades for a technical communication department.
The advanced job levels are important for two reasons. First, they give employees who do not wish to move into management a career track. Also, some departments must hire senior writers at higher levels to be able to meet salary demands. One Silicon Valley manager said she had to hire all her new people at a Principal Writer level because the Senior Technical Writer salary range was just too low.
In some cases, the responsibilities of the senior technical writer have moved to the fourth level, and the new senior technical writer position has less responsibility.
What are these higher positions (above level 3) called? The following list is a selection of current titles:
Technical Publications Consultant
Lead Technical Writer
Principal Technical Writer
Senior Principal Technical Writer
Learning Products Developer
Technical Writer 4
Member of Technical Staff
Staff Technical Writer
Senior Staff Technical Writer
We have concentrated the salary data on the senior technical writer position or its equivalent. The average senior technical writer salary among survey participants is $82,000 in the Bay Area, $67,000 in Texas, and $62,000 in the All Other Areas category.
Many managers we surveyed had lost writers to other companies offering higher salaries. Some felt it was only dot-com companies that were prepared to buy employees in this way. Our survey showed that it was not just small companies that could make extravagant salary offers, but that mid-sized and large, established companies might also offer very high salaries. Some managers were unaware that their salaries were well above market.
Cost of Living Surprises
What happens when we adjust these salaries for cost of living? Cost of living measures include housing, fuel, and food costs, and are very high in the Bay Area. The average senior writer salary in the Bay Area is 22% higher than the average in Texas and 32% higher than the average in the All Other category. However, because of the difference in cost of living in these regions, the standard of living, as opposed to salary, is surprisingly different in the three regions, with the Bay Area having the lowest standard of living.
The cost for living index compared with the national average of 100 is 166 for the Bay Area, 116 for Denver, 105 for Dallas, and 87 for Houston. Note that although writers in the Bay Area earn 30% more than most other areas, the cost of living is 66% more than other areas. By combining the average senior technical writer salary with the cost of living index we have calculated a “Senior Writer standard of living index.” With the national average set at 100 this index is 124 for Houston, 103 for Dallas, 86 for Denver, and 80 for the Bay Area. We hope that the amenities in the Bay Area compensate for the low standard of living.
Hiring and Retention
Hiring was an area of great concern to most managers we interviewed, because 85% of the interviewees are currently hiring. Many had already experienced difficulties replacing people who leave.
The average length of service with a company is 4.7 years. The turnover rate over the last two years has been high: an average of 6.5 people per department. Some companies had 100% turnover, with a significant number of involuntary terminations also reported.
Salary was an issue in turnover. Some managers reported writers leaving to join pre-IPO companies because of salary. In Denver, a writer was lured away from a $50,000 per year job to a pre-IPO company with an offer of $85,000 plus stock options and a sign-on bonus. Other technical communicators have been lured away to pre-IPO companies by stock options alone, with little or no salary increase.
When looking for new employees, managers want experience. Almost everyone is looking for senior-level people. Only 29% of managers we interviewed would accept one or two new, junior-level writers. This heats up the competition for experienced technical writers because there are not enough of them to go around.
The five most common skills technical communication managers seek in new employees are the following, in descending order:
- Good writing skills
- Experience in the technical field, technical knowledge
- Knowledge of the tools
- Flexibility, ability to tolerate ambiguity
Just about everyone we interviewed agreed that the greatest obstacle to hiring was “finding qualified people.” A high percentage of managers felt it was difficult to hire within their company’s current salary ranges (100% in the Bay Area). In other, less competitive areas, responses were mixed.
We also asked about benefits as a factor in hiring and keeping employees. The most surprising figures came from questions about telecommuting. Full-time telecommuting (full-time work at home, often in another city) is offered in about 50% of the companies interviewed in the Bay Area, and in about 20% overall. The reason usually given for the high level of telecommuting in the Bay Area is traffic congestion.
In addition to full-time telecommuting, companies offer scheduled telecommuting (employees arrange to work one or more days at home, the same days each week) and casual telecommuting (employees ask if they may work at home this Thursday).
Because of the difficulty of obtaining salary information, we have a sample size of about 55 departments. We were turned down by many companies that have a policy of keeping salary information strictly confidential. However, we have enough data to see some interesting trends.
Trends that are immediately visible are increasing salaries, competition from pre-IPO companies, and difficulty in hiring. Technical communication compensation is moving rapidly toward parity with software development because it is increasingly considered a technical profession.
Because the salaries in the Bay Area are not nearly high enough to compensate for the high cost of living, we notice more salary pressure in the Bay Area. People change jobs more often for more salary in the Bay Area than elsewhere in the country. As a result, non-salary benefits are not as effective in the Bay Area as elsewhere. Still, Bay Area managers make valiant attempts, by offering the highest rates of vacation, sabbatical, flex time, and telecommuting. Bay Area writers try to decrease the cost of living by moving out of the Bay Area, if possible, and working by telecommuting.
What should Bay Area companies and others in areas of low unemployment do to control salaries and attrition? It might be useful for managers to look carefully at methods to increase efficiency rather than adding staff. All the staff additions to handle increased workloads put pressure on the entire community of technical writers and become a significant factor in escalating salaries.
Managers might also want to look closely at the impact of telecommuting on efficiency. As we move to a single-source environment, it is clear that collaboration becomes much more important to successful information development. Telecommuting makes collaboration more difficult.
Telecommuting certainly is a valuable perk to writers, particularly when it allows them to live outside the Bay Area. However, managers need to ensure that telecommuting is not cutting into staff productivity, resulting in the need for additional headcount or contractors. The result of the increase in telecommuting can be an even greater shortage of writers and even higher salaries.
In companies outside of the Bay Area, the pressure for salaries is much less intense. People in these areas are more likely to change jobs because of other issues such as challenging work, convenience, and nonsalary perks. These companies can use nonsalary perks to their advantage. Examples are the three weeks of starting vacation and generous sign-on bonuses that we encountered in the Dallas area.