Career Center Blog

May 6, 2013

With starting salaries, don't expect to be average


When I accepted my first full-time job offer, back in the heady autumn days of 1989, I was a recent college graduate with a journalism degree (I know -- tragic, right?), and everything seemed possible. The Berlin Wall was suddenly an open sieve, democracy was flooding into Eastern Europe and I had a real job as an editorial assistant, paying an annual salary of $17,500.

No, that wasn't a typo, it was really $17,500. But that was back when people actually gave employees decent raises, plus 100 percent matching contributions to a 401(k), so I couldn't really complain for very long. At the time, I was just happy to get any kind of steady work in my field.

But I was puzzled soon after when I read reports that average starting salaries my position were supposed to be $10,000 to $25,000 higher. No other colleagues I knew with my level of experience even came close to these figures. I wouldn't see such salary levels until at least five years and several title changes into my career.

Many salary discrepancies can be explained by regional income disparity, experience levels and the amount of responsibility in each position. But these results also illustrate the effect that data outliers have on salaries that use an average -- the sum of all salaries divided by the number of people studied -- as a measurement instead of the median (the point separating the upper and lower halves of the sample of salary values).

By using an average, a relatively small number of higher-end starting salaries can throw off the rest of the data points and raise the average above the salaries that most new grads will see.

Today, nearly a quarter-century later, the same high-end skew is still apparent in the latest data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which publishes a Salary Survey report three times a year.

In the April report, you'll be hard-pressed to fund many low-end starting salary averages of less than $30,000 a year in any job category, which seems faintly ridiculous considering how real wages have been stagnant for more than 40 years.

So take these figures with a boulder-sized grain of salt: The average overall starting salary NACE reported for college grads is now $44,928, a 5.3 percent increase from the 2012 average of $42,666 reported the previous April. While the actual dollar figures may seem unnaturally high, grads can be genuinely encouraged by the across-the-board rates of growth reported in all eight broad job categories covered in the survey.

For instance, the health sciences category ($49,713 average) rose 9.4 percent over the 2012 figure, representing the greatest year-over-year increase in the report. Visit the Executive Summary pages for more details by job category.

In NACE's separate Job Outlook Spring Update report, the Class of 2013 got some more good news. Employers surveyed in the report said they expect to increase their hiring of new grads by 2.1 percent compared to the Class of 2012. While any rise in hiring is positive, an earlier NACE survey from fall 2012 had predicted that 2013 hiring was going to be 13 percent stronger than 2012.

All in all, it's a mixed bag for the graduates who will be picking up diplomas this month. But with a local unemployment rate finally dipping to 7.3 percent and some positive movement in salaries and hiring activity, the employment horizon is looking almost as sunny and surprising as last weekend's gorgeous weather.

Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

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Karen Burns Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Kristen Fife Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.

Lisa Quast Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Randy Woods Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Former contributors

Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."


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