Substandard Wages for Technical Writers: A Growing Trend?
This week's question comes from Mary in New York:
I am a loyal reader of your blog and have gained more from it than all the seminars and continuing ed courses I've taken--which cost me a good chunk of my salary.
Recently, I've noticed a disturbing trend which I hope you might consider blogging about. I'm an experienced technical writer currently looking for work, and I've been contacted by several recruiters. However, the hourly rate the recruiters want to pay me is far below my expectations for senior technical writing positions.
These recruiters want to pay $28/hr for senior technical writing positions. Many of these positions require advanced knowledge of content management systems, experience with many complex technologies such as XML, XSLT, XSL-FO, and more. I invested close to $10,000 over the past 2 years learning DITA and other XML vocabularies. In my life I have invested close to quarter of a million dollars (counting college, graduate school, conferences, and adult education) to get the necessary knowledge and training for these positions.
The salaries I'm being offered are on par with what I pay non-English speaking cleaning persons (I pay 2 sisters, each $25/hr for several hours of work each week). Clearly the recruiter is taking more than half for him or herself. (BTW: When I say recruiter, I also mean companies that represent the "contractor." These companies hire the "Contractor," offer no benefits and pay a sub-standard wage, while they collect twice that from the company.)
A recruiter called me today and offered me the sub-standard wage of $22.00/hr for a job that listed the above requirements AND was located in New York City! Six months ago, the wage that recruiters seemed to agree on was $35/hr. Now it is mid-twenties. Why is this happening?
Is it happening because there are writers out there who agree to those wages? Aren't they doing the rest of us a disservice by doing so? The more recruiters are able to get writers willing to work for such wages, the greedier they get and the lower the salaries go ... sometimes by 2 dollars here and 2 dollars there, but in five months it adds up. $35/hr becomes $25/hr ... and now this is the first recruiter who has called me with the insulting offer of $22/hr.
I love my work as a technical writer, but I am beginning to see that I would be better off working as a cleaning person. I wouldn't need to update my skills every 4 months, and I would get paid around the same.
My overall question is this: Do writers who work for sub-standard wages hurt the tech comm industry? If so, what can we do about it? Thanks for any insights you can provide.
I opened this question up to the professional technical writing community for responses. Some responded in a Google doc and others responded in the comments below this post.
In general, the trend among the answers is that writing is becoming a commodity that can be offshored or outsourced for low wages. Technical writers need to expand their skillsets to go beyond writing to add more value to their company. They need to be problem solvers, analytical thinkers, contributing more than just words, but also contributing to social media, user interfaces, content strategy, business analysis, elearning, information architecture, project planning, and more.
Kristi Leach points out that writing alone isn't valued because so many feel that "no one reads the manual anyway." As technical communicators go beyond writing and provide more value to the company, their jobs will become more secure and their salaries higher.
Other responses mentioned more contributing factors to the trend of sub-standard wages -- the down economy, the principle of supply and demand, the acceptance of "good enough" standards.
The trend is cyclical. Sub-standard wages attract inexperienced or desperate technical writers. The deliverables they produce may reflect their inexperience or may be the product of bad working conditions that don't allow for high quality information products. The result is a general perception that manuals, online help, and other technical writing deliverables aren't worth much. As a result, employers continue to offer low wages for the work, even to experienced technical writers. Low wages will in turn drive experienced technical writers into other fields, such as interaction design or usability. Those who are left (the outsourced, offshored, inexperienced group of technical writers) continue to reinforce the employers' misperceptions, and soon it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy moving the field as a whole downward.
This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it explains the growing discontent with the title "technical writer" and the reason more professionals move to other titles such as technical communicator, information developer, information designer, content strategist, and others.
Here are the responses. Thanks to everyone who participated.
There was a similar thing going on in 2002 when I was last going through contracting firms and recruiters. I got quoted salaries of $12.50/hr in this area, which I thought was tremendously insulting (and unlivable). The reality is that there are a number of things that are probably contributing to the situation today: the economy, a glut of displaced technical writers (as writing positions are moved to China and India), and businesses trying to keep their costs down and still provide U.S. workers an opportunity. Those employers tend to offer less to the contracting firms and the firms offer less to the candidates so they can keep their margin. By farming the search out to contracting firms, the businesses get the side benefit of not having to deal with the HR issues (and a smaller HR staff) thereby keeping costs down even more.
Unless the company with the requirement actually wants to take the cost of filling the temporary position, I doubt you'll see much change. The hiring company may be offering what they think is a reasonable salary, but the contracting company has to take their margin from that offer, thus resulting in what you're seeing. (Remember, this is all my opinion and I don't represent any contracting firm by my statements.)
Julio J. Vazquez
I'm afraid that technical writing, as distinct from other forms of technical communication, is fast becoming a commodity. Companies can find writers who are willing to work for low wages and produce work that's "good enough." Increasingly, as Julio mentioned, these writers are offshore.
To continue earning a living wage, today's technical writers need to diversify their skills. We have to market themselves as specialized editors, information architects, content strategists, and the like.
Over the long term, I hope that the people in our profession can educate employers about the bottom-line value of good technical writing. Too many companies settle for "good enough" because no one has shown them that excellent technical writing produces measurable benefits in customer satisfaction, liability avoidance, and so forth. We have a long way to go in this area, but it's a big point of emphasis for STC.
Yes, in recent years we have seen this trend developing. With the advent of collaboration platforms such as oDesk and the like, we are seeing the rate paid to technical writers becoming lower and lower not only on the per-hour basis, but also as a trend towards forcing riders to perform on flimsy per-contract bases also. I am hoping in time to see that we cannot put up with this any further, and that some kind of realistic balance may be later achieved.
[By the way, I wrote this in about 10 seconds with some voice recognition software.]
Sadly, I think this is a result of the bad economy. My husband, an aircraft mechanic responsible for keeping huge jets carrying hundreds of passengers in the air, has been forced into so many concessions, he grumbles that garbage men earn more for tossing Hefty bags into the back of a truck.
(Brief aside to sanitation workers who find my comment insulting: When you compare the knowledge and experience required to haul trash versus maintain the complex systems of a commercial jetliner, is it not reasonable to expect a higher salary for the latter? Failure at only one of these jobs can result in death.)
For many unemployed professionals, a job at any salary is better than no job, so I think the supply/demand principle is a big part of this trend. But I also believe another mitigating factor is the continued insistence that anybody can write. I face it every day. Because of that belief, employers are expecting basic writing ability in all job candidates and are getting it. That perpetuates the myth that anyone can do our jobs. I work with a writer who, after a year of unemployment, accepted a ridiculously low salary that he is now stuck with, and yet after a year of unemployment, I am sure I'd have done the same.
We need to campaign more effectively for the bigger picture, as Mary describes it... DITA, XML, the task analyses we perform, the ability to make the complex not only simple to understand but easy to apply. We design a variety of help systems, and influence interface design decisions. Many call us ‘generalists', but I believe we are specialists in many related areas and THAT'S what commands higher pay.
All of this speaks to a simple truth for myself: it's why I no longer consider myself a technical writer. Here in North Carolina tech writing has taken a real backseat to disciplines like UX and IXD. The demand and the pay for these other disciplines is better, and what you do is more obviously impacting the bottom line. Yes, it requires retraining and retooling (although tech writing formed part of a natural foundation, and the skills remain useful) but it pays to follow the money trail.
I would also add that “Campaigning” for the importance of tech writing is a position of pure weakness (given it is an established profession, not nascent). If that's what tech writers in general are faced with -- and apparently it is given that I first heard people talking about it almost a decade ago -- I recommend doing something else. I did, am and thankful for it.
Here in the Silicon Valley, the same problem is happening. What really bothers me is the “cut” that most contract agencies extract for putting together employer and contractor. I call them Pimps, because they provide a service, but they command a much larger percentage of the “take” than their efforts warrant. After being laid off from Cisco in 2003, I worked as a contractor for a year or so, hoping to be hired back. There were only three contract agencies that had been approved to do business with Cisco, so if you wanted to play, you had to pay. They regularly billed Cisco for $100 an hour and kept half! One agency I worked with also made you work for a month, then billed them, and then, only after they got paid (usually 6-8 weeks after start date), they would pay you.
They also regularly ignored the California state laws about what constitutes a contract worker and what constitutes a temp worker. The agency that had been audited (and caught) paid the fines and followed the rules to “hire” us as temp workers, but they paid us even less (“more overhead,” they said) and we were not allowed to work overtime, so if we needed to work extra hours, it was “off the books.” Cisco eventually lost a class-action lawsuit regarding tech writers, so now I believe they are considered hourly workers, which is a drop in status.
Where I now work is a smaller company. When I started contracting for them as an individual, they asked me to join MBO Partners (http://www.mbopartners.com/), a GREAT website for consultants and contractors, and in exchange for providing billing services and timecard, insurance, a web presence, and other things, they billed an extra $3 an hour to my invoices. Employer loved not having to overpay, I loved getting my full $60 an hour, and they got a fair amount. I urge all of you to check out MBO Services and try to work through them. It is free to sign up. Eventually I was hired by the last company, and I am one of the lucky ones to have full pay and benefits. Good luck to you all.
I am in my second tech writing gig and have only seen my pay increase, although I also moved to an area with a higher standard of living and increased cost to commute. I also lost any guaranteed benefits and have reduced time off. But I am happy with the pay increase (almost as happy as being able to voluntarily leave one job and quickly get another in a different state with a larger company), and I like the flexibility of choosing my own benefits.
This is a classic supply and demand problem. Lots of unemployed writers = lower wage offers. Also, I wouldn't be so quick to blame the recruiters. I would assume that the employers are also exerting downward pressure on the rates they're willing to pay. That is, the employer who used to pay $50/hour now wants to pay $40/hour.
The solution to this problem is to have a compelling set of skills that employers are willing to pay a premium for.
Blaming the unemployed writers is a bit harsh. $22/hour is a lot more than you might get from unemployment insurance (assuming it hasn't run out) and it's probably enough for shelter and food. If you're close to losing your house, you don't have the luxury of turning up your nose at low-ball offers.
Finally, “sub-standard” is in the eye of the beholder. I think we're in the midst of a painful reset of salary expectation for technical writers. There are a variety of factors at work here, including high unemployment, competition from lower-cost locales, and low expectations for the work product. (That is, you may produce much better content than the $22/hour writer, but if the employer thinks that the less expensive person produces work that's “good enough,” then your increased quality is irrelevant.)
Sarah O'Keefe, scriptorium.com
I agree with Sarah's comments. A lot of it is to do with the value the employers perceive they are getting. If they don't see the value, then they won't pay. In the past, companies were paying for domain knowledge or specialist technical skills (in Windows Help, for example) in addition to writing skills. A lot of technical writing these days is in Word and in HTML, which are not as mysterious as say HDK or FrameMaker. So the profession has to demonstrate value, accept it offers less value than it thought it did, and/or become mysterious again.
People are motivated greatly by a fear of loss. So if someone offers you a job at a low rate, there's a fear of losing that opportunity and that another one won't come along. However, that fear of loss works both ways. If you can demonstrate you can offer something to an organisation (at your price), then they may be motivated by a fear of losing that value. That may mean not waiting for offers from a recruitment agency, but GOYA (getting off your ...) to network and prospect. Harder done than said, I know. Of course, they will be motivated by having a problem or pain they want to solve, and that there's hope that it can be solved.
There is some hope for the future. Finally, with Web-based content, we can measure how many readers we have, if they found it useful, if there is a correlation between how much User Assistance there is and how many Support calls, and so on.
Ellis Pratt, cherryleaf.com
The cheese was moved some time ago.
I'd be happy to talk with anyone who is interested in figuring out their future (nope, I am not a coach, professional therapist, or other such thing). I have reinvented myself a number of times. Most recently, I started a small company based upon my interest in family history and genealogy.
I believe the future of technical communication is in the blogosphere and other social media outlets. Employers don't see us as having the skills for that and know that they can hire people coming out of college for $12.00 an hour to blog like crazy, whether the content is good, bad, or indifferent. If anyone would like to work on this as a business model for tech pubs, let me know, because there is a great white paper in the topic.
We, technical communicators, can't possibly control what employers will and won't do, but we can control what we do. I believe that we have lots of great skills and talents to offer, but it will have to be in other fields doing other types of communication work. Making the choice to move on is the hard part.
I wanted to make just one comment. I do not believe, honestly, that training in XML and DITA costs around $10,000. I first heard about DITA in 2004. By the end of 2006, I was leading a documentation conversion project for my company, and by the end of 2008, that project has been completed. Between 2004 and 2006, I went to a few conferences, and learned by reading basic technical books and information available online. The basic XML class that I took sometime around the year 2000 had cost me about $200. Each of the conferences, even if I were to pay myself (they were paid by the company) had a price tag of about $1000 including all expenses and travel. The books were for $20 or so each. All other information is free and available online. Nowadays, there is even no need to go to these conferences to learn the same technology as it is widely spread and available for free or nearly for free, through seminars and books.
This is not surprising in the world of commodity writing. However, it's hardly a trend. I'm interviewing people this morning for several clients who have several tech comm jobs available that pay extremely well, above the annual reported salaries from the STC salary survey. That said, "writing" is not the focus of the jobs, "communication" is, which involves strategy, information architecture, project planning, usability, accessibility, and more. Writing is not a skill that is going to continue to pay high wages. If that is your differentiator, you're in big trouble.
Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler
Another source of this problem is that anybody can set themselves up as a contract recruiter or agency. When I first started job hunting in Atlanta in 1990, when the job market divebombed after the invasion in Kuwait, there were a limited number of contract agencies in the area. In the next 3 years until hiring rebounded in about 1993, I got to know at least one recruiter at most of the agencies that even occasionally hired technical writers and editors. Since then, most of the local agencies have become part of national organizations, but they and some of the newer local agencies operate in a professional manner. However, in the last few years, the number of new recruiters (mostly single-person operations) that have popped up, who call and badger me to work for them for around $22/hour have become a major aggravation.
As someone else mentioned, most major employers used to work with a few selected, vetted recruiting firms or contract agencies to obtain contract employees. Government agencies, however have to post their openings publicly, and any agency can submit candidates. I have been most often annoyed by these fly-by-night fast-talking individuals when there were open posted positions at the CDC or the GA DOT or DOL. Many speak English with a horrible accent and talk too fast for me to understand them on the phone.
Recruiters at nation-wide professional contract agencies have told me that the typical agency markup over the contract hourly rate is 20-35%, and they wish to maintain good relationships with both their clients and contract employees. Those who are trying to grab 50-75% and offer the writers insulting rates are in it for the money, and because they think they can get away with it.
I don't think it's a position of weakness to know how to articulate the value of your position. We could compare that to the development team or the accounting team, for example, and argue that they don't seem to need to justify their existence. But don't they? I see people in many fields who have invested in themselves and bring superior skills to the company having to compete with those who have less skill (and lower wages) or with offshoring.
I do agree that it's a bit different for tech comm folk, though, mainly for the reasons that Scott Abel mentioned--the hot deliverables like communication strategies and more integrated user assistance are more valued than the help systems and manuals that “no one reads, anyway.” If we can't connect the dots for management to show that we are the ones that can handle that shift for them, we can get left behind.
I do think that if you are in a market where writers are frantically taking what they can get, it will drag your wages down, and you'll have to work harder to find the sweet jobs. Can you find new recruiters? Can you find clients directly?
Further, can you help other writers develop better negotiating skills and better prospecting skills? If you're active in your local STC chapter (or another group), maybe you can organize a panel discussion or present on what works for you. You'll be investing in the quality of your job market, and accomplishing some networking at the same time.
Although current economics have something to do with what you're seeing, I believe that there will always be a wide range of salaries for the simple fact that if a company searches long enough, they will always find someone who will accept their low paying positions. I once was offered a position with a company for $20,000 LESS than what I wanted. Their HR person even told me that my salary expectation was out of line for the position and that they “hoped I would consider” the amount they were offering because they felt I was, otherwise, a perfect fit for them. (Note: This was during regular economic times.) I declined to accept that horrendous offer knowing full well that the entire company must undervalue technical communicators, otherwise, how could HR say such a thing. Not more than a few weeks later, I found a position that paid exactly what I wanted without even a quibble. Of course, the low-paying position was also filled. As an active STC member, I meet technical communicator all the time; every now and then, I meet the unfortunate people that are employed by that low-paying company. They talk of the stressful work environment, long hours, and lack of respect. Sometimes, even the best of us are subjected to those working conditions, but the difference is that we are better compensated for it. By settling for lower wages, they become part of the problem. They reinforce the company's lacklustre wages. Instead, we should always stay knowledgeable about current salaries, and if we have access to local salary information, we should go into the interview ready to use it.
(A Calgarian that knows her worth!)
Fortunately, given how available social media tools are now, you don't have to depend entirely on recruiters. You have more control over your job search options due to social media like TweetMyJob or the search engine in Twitter. If the job is listed on TweetMyJobs or Twitter, my experience has been that it was usually posted in the last hour or day and provides a link to more information. Given your comments, you might want to use those search engines more and recruiters less.
I agree with those who say that you have to have something extra to get a higher rate.
For example, I am currently helping a large proposal team to respond to a very complex proposal. The rate is far higher than anything I made for technical writing. I found the job on Twitter, went through a recruiter, and held out for a higher rate than they said they could offer...and then did offer the higher rate after I refused the lower rate.
And Tom...great technique surveying other tech writers for their experience as well.
Bruce Curley, poetslife.blogspot.com, [email protected]
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.