Monday, January 11, 2010

It's a buyers' market for wages

It was the first time I had run into the question in an online job applica- tion, and so I hesitated.

"Current salary" (fill in the blank); "Desired salary" (fill in the blank). What numbers should I offer, particularly to the latter?

Online forms are the rage these days. They ask the usual kinds of questions like name, address and past employer(s), and allow you to upload or cut and paste a resume and cover letter. Hit "send," and off it goes. In return, you usually receive an emailed acknowledgement of your effort -- something often lacking when employers seek a paper or email package in response to a job posting.

But the online forms can be frustrating. On one, I was asked to supply the names of five previous employers when I only had four -- without reaching back to my time bartending in college. And the program would not let me submit my application without the required five.

Same with supplying a number for "Current salary": If I try to answer "NA," since I'm unemployed, I get an error message. So what do I say to "Desired salary"?

Recruiters and human resources professionals will advise you not to talk salary if at all possible, although it's generally recognized that if no mention of money is made, you and the prospective employer both may be wasting time.

But should you low-ball yourself when it appears the labor market is already doing that for you?

An Associated Press story that ran in many newspapers Sunday recounts the tales of laid-off workers who, when they finally returned to work, found themselves earning less than they had before. It's what happens with economic calamities like the Great Recession, according to labor experts.

Even more troubling, though, is that it will take these workers years to get back to their previous salary levels.

In a study last year published by the Connecticut Department of Labor, researchers found that workers who lost their jobs during a recession were still suffering lower-wage effects years later. “What it shows is that if workers who have held a job for at least three years lose that job during a recession, they still have earnings losses of 20 percent or more six years afterwards,” said Kenneth Couch, an associate professor of economics at the University of Connecticut and lead author of the study.

These days, though, lower pay seems to be a given -- especially in journalism, where so many have been laid off or bought out. A lot of candidates are competing for the same jobs -- even freelance ones -- and the media companies that are hiring are doing so cautiously and watching their pennies.

One prospective employer I spoke to informally tested my interest in a job that would pay 20 percent less than I had been making before I was laid off; another quoted me a salary that I had started my last job at a decade ago.

It's discouraging and demoralizing, but apparently it's the new normal.


Greg Waldron said...

Hi Marlene. I really like your blog. It's very interesting to learn more about the industry over there.

I can't speak for the rest of Asia, but in Singapore most business publications pay just 50 Singapore cents ($0.30) per word for freelance articles, and they often wait three or four months to pay up.

They have been paying such miserly rates for years, and many local freelancers actually earn even less. It's very frustrating.

This state of affairs eventually drove me over to the dark side of writing. The corporates are great paymasters, but some of the stuff I write makes the journalist in me cringe.


Unfortunately, it does seem sometimes like we're in a race to the bottom on talent, credibility and pay. I wish I had a crystal ball on what the industry will look like in a year or two (or even 6 months!). Thanks for reading and your comments.