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Employment and salary outlook for technical writers based on the 2017-2018 STC Salary Database

by Tom Johnson on Jan 8, 2019
categories: technical-writing

The 2017-2018 STC Salary Database was recently released, and the employment and salary levels for technical writers are looking really good — especially for some areas. 'San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara' (a Metropolitan Statistical Area or MSA) had a 34.5% increase in tech writer employment for 2017 and continued to be the highest-paying MSA for the fifth straight year in a row. In this post, I'll share a few highlights from the report.

Why I was looking at the latest Salary Database

I started looking through the 2017-2018 Salary Database to update the Best locations for API documentation jobs topic in my API documentation course. I figured I would just update a few details for 2017, but I found myself drawn into the 2017-2018 report, reading it nearly cover to cover. This year’s report seems to have more general commentary, analysis, and instruction about how to read and interpret the data. It’s well-written and illuminating. I highly recommend that you get a copy of the report (STC membership required) and read it — especially if you’re looking at changing jobs or relocating this year.

The Salary Database is based on 2017 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). You can view some of the data directly (and freely) on the BLS site at Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2017 27-3042 Technical Writers. Keep in mind that the data from the BLS (and the STC Salary DB) will always trail about a year behind. The BLS collects data from HR departments during two intervals during the year. The data covers about 50,000 technical writer jobs.

My Takeaways from the Salary Database

Here are a few of my takeaways from the report. (Bear with me — I’m not an economist, so my understanding of some of these concepts is limited.)

Before jumping into technical writer info, the report provides some context with the broader economy:

  • In the overall U.S. economy, the real gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate (which measures how fast the economy is growing) has fluctuated between 1.5% and 2.9% for the past 5 years. In 2017, it was 2.3%. The forecast for 2018 is 2.9%, which is higher than it has been for 10 years. High GDP correlates with increased salary and employment numbers for tech comm.

  • Salary increases across all industries average about 3% each year and have remained steady for the past 5 years. Forecasts for 2018 put the salary rate at “just over 3%.” Salary increases need to be evaluated in the context of inflation. According to the report, “Inflation was nearly flat in 2015 and increased 1.3% in 2016, 2.1% in 2017, and is expected to increase 2.4% in 2018.” The gap between the salary increase and inflation rate “will create a 0.7% to 0.9% net gain in consumer buying power” in 2018.

  • Unemployment levels in the U.S. are at an all-time low. Levels of unemployment have been declining since 2009. In 2013, the unemployment rate was 7.4%, and in 2017 it was 4.4%. The forecast for 2018 is 3.8%, “which would be the lowest annual unemployment rate experienced since 1969.” The report says some unemployment drop might be due to retiring baby boomers. The numbers also exclude those who stopped trying to find a job.

  • Turnover rates for 2017 were 3.6% and are expected to be similar in 2018. Turnover rates increase as “competition for talent increases” and as compensation levels rise.

Now let’s get into some data more specific to technical writing jobs:

  • Only about 180 technical writer jobs were added during 2017, bringing the total number of employed tech writers in the U.S. to 49,960. Even so, this is the highest level that has ever been reached. In 2014, 910 jobs were added, and in 2015, 1,560 jobs were added. The report notes that the numbers might be under-reported due to diverse job titles.

  • Regarding industries, most technical writers are employed in Computer Systems Design and Related Services. However, this industry experienced a loss, as did nearly every other top-employing industry. Only Engineering Services grew (by 4.7%). Why the reduction among these top-employing industries? “STC hypothesizes that the appearance of a loss of technical writer jobs in these industries is due to shifting job titles resulting from the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.” (According to Wikipedia, the Fourth Industrial Revolution refers to the “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres, collectively referred to as cyber-physical systems.”) Among smaller industries, significant gainers included Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers, Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing and Machinery, Equipment, and Supplies Merchant Wholesalers.

  • At the state level (not the MSA-level), Texas grew the most, adding 430 jobs (for a total of 4,360). California actually lost 250 jobs. California still tops the charts, though, with the most tech writer employment (6,340). There’s a bit of volatility regarding the fastest growing states. The report says, “Six of the states on the list (Texas, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey, and New Mexico) were not on the 2016 list and four of the top five employment gainers in 2016 did not make this year’s list (Massachusetts, Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania).”

  • Among the MSAs, the top five “fastest-growing markets in 2017” included San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA (34.5% increase in employment from prior year), San Diego-Carlsbad, CA (32.9% increase in employment), Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA (31% increase in employment), Austin-Round Rock, TX (34.5% increase in employment), and Colorado Springs, CO (75% increase in employment).

    In particular, the report notes that “San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA was the top employment grower in 2017. Their increase of 400 technical writer positions represented a 34.5% increase over 2016 employment numbers.” Since I live in Santa Clara and work in Sunnyvale, and we’re actually hiring (see this job post), I can see first-hand what it’s like to live in an area where 400 new jobs were added. Basically, it’s hard as heck to find qualified people to fill a position because as soon as you start interviewing people, they get an offer from another company. We’ve had a position open for nearly 6 months that we can’t fill.

    Even with this impressive rate of 34.5% growth in employment, I wasn’t sure how this number compared historically in the area. Last year, there was a 14.7% drop in employment (-200) in San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, which led me to speculate that perhaps people were leaving the Bay area due to high housing costs (see my post Do you have to relocate to an urban tech hub to find a technical writing job?).

    With a 34.5% increase this year, I wondered if this year-to-year volatility was just part of the natural fluctuations of job levels in the area. So I dug back a bit further to get employment numbers for San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara from the start of the STC Salary Database tracking, which was 2007. Here’s the trend:

    Year Tech writers employed in San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara
    2006 1,370
    2007 1,350
    2008 1,350
    2009 1,510
    2010 1,340
    2011 1,340
    2012 1,200
    2013 no data
    2014 1,360
    2015 1,360
    2016 1,160
    2017 1,560

    The average employment for the past decade here is 1,330 jobs. A surge of 230 jobs above this average (even though it’s Silicon Valley, the mecca of tech) is significant. Maybe 2018 will see another decline, balancing back the numbers?

  • Not every area is growing. The areas that experienced the “largest employment losses” (10% or more) were (1) Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI, (2) Raleigh, NC, (3) Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ, (4) Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN, and (5) Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO. Denver is where the STC Summit will be held in May. (I wonder if that decrease will influence the general attitude about tech comm during the conference?)

  • As far as wage growth rates, tech writers are a little under the national average of 3%. In 2016, the rate declined 0.6% but rose 1.5% in 2017. The national average for 2018 forecasts slightly more than 3%. However, the report predicts that in 2018, “technical writer wages are likely to grow at the estimated national rate or a slightly lower rate if the trend experienced in the past five years continues.” The report suggests that lower wage rates are due to a younger, less experienced generation replacing retiring baby boomers.

  • As far as the highest-paying MSAs, “San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA ranked first for the fifth straight year, with an estimated median annual wage of $110,330. Santa Rosa, CA ranked second with a median annual wage of $92,040.” Of the top 10 highest-paid MSAs, four are in California. Of course, California also has one of the highest costs of living. I pay nearly $3k a month in rent for an old, 1,000 square-foot house that would probably be a “tear-down” if sold.

Those are pretty much the highlights. Again, if you’re looking for a job, you can’t go wrong with “San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA.” Now would be a great time to transition into API documentation by seeking employment in this area. You can read more details in the 2017-2018 STC Salary Database.

Here’s a short poll to see how your own experience aligns with the findings in the 2017-2018 Salary DB:

Results are here.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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