Friday, August 15, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Salaries in Advertisements

A frustrated correspondent writes:

In looking at the academic job market (including academic library
positions), I have noticed that a lot of institutions do not publish
the salary (or specify benefits in any meaningful way) of the position
in the posting. Often, there will be some vague comment to the effect
of "TBD - depends on experience and qualifications." Why not provide a
range or a minimum/maximum though? I find it difficult to believe that
the university/college does not have a minimum or maximum already set
before it starts the search. Why hide it? Or fail to include it? There
are a lot of cases (esp. in cases where a collective agreement defines
salary levels) where it is included in the ad, but I'm curious why it
would be omitted in any case.

On the potential applicant side of things, that is important data to
know. It can help determine if it is worth packing up and moving to a
new city, for example. Any ideas about this?

Ooh, I like that. Put the salaries in the ads, and see what happens.

Unfortunately, there are several reasons not to do that.

The most basic is that, for many positions, the actual salary depends on the applicant. In a collective bargaining setting, there's often a grid you have to use, based on the person's degrees and experience. Depending on which person gets the offer, the offer will differ.

Ranges can help, but they can also cause problems of their own. Say the range for a given position is listed as 45-60k. You're offered 46, and told that they can't really negotiate. How do you respond?

In the real world, you either walk away, or you take it but start nursing a sense of resentment. Either way, the employer loses.

Say, instead, that you somehow negotiate your way into the middle of the range. What happens internally? Salary compression, and crabbiness amongst the natives. The employer loses again.

Worse, I've seen ranges like 42k-92k. Those are so broad as to tell you almost nothing. They're usually artifacts of some outliers caused by weird historical survivals, but try telling that to a disappointed applicant who expected 65 and got offered 48.

From the applicant's perspective, some truth in advertising could certainly save a lot of time. When I was trying to escape from Proprietary U, I had an interview for a faculty gig at Nearby Catholic College. What I didn't know until the end of the interview was that their salary scale had been set back when the faculty were all nuns, and hadn't really been adjusted since. It would have represented a substantial pay cut even from PU, and that's saying something. Had I known that upfront, I wouldn't have bothered applying, and wouldn't have wasted everyone's time with an interview that wasn't going to result in a hire.

Benefits are even harder to specify. Health insurance packages change almost hourly, and their value depends largely on the family and health circumstances of the employee.

Public institutions have to make their salaries known, but they don't have to make it easy for you to find. They also don't have to explain them, so it wouldn't be hard to reach some shaky conclusions based on very partial information.

Annoyingly, you can't just infer likely salaries from combining, say, national averages for a given position with a vague multiplier based on region. Salary scales are often artifacts of relatively arbitrary decisions in the distant past – before what Bill Bishop called 'The Big Sort' in his wonderful book of the same name – and then changed incrementally. Since the rest of the country polarized much more than incrementally, some serious mismatches have developed. My rule of thumb, at least at the community college level, is that salaries tend to cluster closer to a national average than does the actual cost of living, so cc faculty can generally do better in the Midwest than on the coasts. Of course, that's just a general trend, with plenty of exceptions, so extrapolate to your own case at your peril.

It's worth noting, too, that private industry generally doesn't post salaries in its ads, either. There's a broader cultural norm at work here.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Should colleges list salaries (or at least narrow ranges of salaries) in job ads? What's in it for the employer?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.