FREE NEWSLETTER

Not Average

Kristine Hayes

I REMEMBER TALKING to a guidance counselor in high school. The meeting was supposed to help me decide which career path I might follow after graduation. As part of my assessment, I’d taken a skills inventory test designed to narrow down jobs I was potentially suited for. Nearly 40 years later, I still remember three of the suggested occupations: tour bus driver, police officer and veterinarian.

In the end, I didn’t choose any of those careers. Instead, I’ve spent more than 30 years working in laboratories. For the past 24 years, my official job title has been “Biology Laboratory and Stockroom Manager.”

Working as a departmental manager at a small liberal arts college isn’t an exciting or glamorous job. It is, however, a job well-matched to both my skill set and my personality. As an introvert, I enjoy the fact that I work independently, with little direct supervision. My job also requires a high degree of attention to detail, as well as organizational and planning expertise. As a perfectionist, I’ve got those skills in spades.

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my career choice. I certainly don’t feel passionate about what I do. With so much talk about the Great Resignation, I wonder if the time is right to move on to something different.

As part of my career exploration, I decided to see how my salary stacked up against my peers. What I discovered was—depending on the statistics examined—I’m either grossly underpaid or generously overcompensated.

My current salary of $78,000 a year appears to be well below the average wages for a laboratory manager. I do, however, receive a generous benefits package and I’ll have access to an early retiree health insurance plan when I retire.

If I compare my salary to women of the same age, I’m definitely ahead of the game. At age 54, the average American woman makes just over $52,000 a year. I suspect my higher wages are due, in part, to my work history. In 30 years, I’ve never taken an extended leave to care for a child or parent.

As a final method of comparison, I looked at the average salaries of workers who hold master’s degrees in biology. Here, too, I find my salary is higher than the national average. But how does one accurately compare the value of two workers with similar educational backgrounds but vastly different work histories? Someone in their mid-50s, with 30 years of experience, should expect to earn far more than a 20-something recent graduate.

Browse Articles

Subscribe
Notify of
24 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
T
T
1 year ago

Dear Kristine, I have been touched and informed by your many articles in Humble Dollar. Thank you for them. I have a thought: as you are in a small college with a small staff, it may repay you to become familiar (if you aren’t already) with the financial health of the institution, especially in the matter of funding all retiree benefits. Also, it may be worth checking to see if any retiree benefits you have are covered under the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in case of default. Good luck.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago
Reply to  T

Hi T.

Thanks for the kind words. I’m always humbled (no pun intended) when readers mention they enjoy my articles. I’ve always enjoyed writing and, even though I didn’t mention it in this article, one of my first majors in college was journalism. I decided against it as a career because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to write under the pressure of a deadline.

Interestingly enough, I was just checking on the financial health of the college I work for. At this point, they have an endowment worth about $780 million. By comparison, the endowment was worth $311 million in 2009. I don’t know enough about how the college administration structures the budget to estimate how healthy their retiree benefits funding is, but I’m hopeful they’ve managed it at least as well as the endowment.

Thanks again for your kind comments.

Jo Bo
Jo Bo
1 year ago

Hi, Kristine.

I too work at a small college and am in awe of all that the lab tech does. Lab managers are such an important part of the college system. I hope that you feel valued in this way — you contribute directly to the education and safety of so many young people. Maybe that can reignite the passion?

Your salary seems similar to those of assistant professors in your region, perhaps even a bit higher. Not too bad, given the benefits you mention and not having a scholarship requirement.

I wish you well with your deliberations.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago
Reply to  Jo Bo

Thanks for your kind words of encouragement. I appreciate my job and I recognize I help provide a valuable practical education to the students who work for me.

I’m not unhappy with my salary by any means. I have some great benefits, a fixed work schedule, a generous amount of vacation, holiday and sick leave and a variety of other perks.

I never took advantage of the most lucrative benefit the college offers: a tuition-remission program for the children of faculty and staff. I know other staff who have put multiple children through college using that benefit. For those workers, it must add tens–or hundreds–of thousands of dollars to their overall compensation package.

Richard Hayman
Richard Hayman
1 year ago

Hi Kristine,

Your article reminded me of a conversation I had with my son a couple of years after he graduated. He said, “Dad, there are two kinds of people in this world. Those that ‘live to work’ and those that ‘work to live’. And we are not the same.”

I used to think about his observation often when I was working. I came to the conclusion that he just could not understand why I loved my job so much and spent so much time doing it.

One summer when he was working for my company. He got upset and said he could make more money working somewhere else. I said I thought I could, too.

I sold my business over 20 years ago and finally feel comfortable that I will not outlive my money. No, I will never be the richest man in the cemetery, but I have no regrets.

It seems you have enjoyed your career and are very good at it. You seemed to have avoided both being dissatisfied in your job and some stress as well.

My ‘lazy’ son did not follow any traditional career path that I would have approved of. But he did find a niche profession that he is very good at and makes a ton of money working just 10-15 hours a week. He spends the rest of his time creating TV shows, writing musicals, and developing a medical information website. If any of them hit, he will be able to retire a year or two before he planned. If not, he will still be OK.

The point is to do what you like and hope someone is willing to pay you for it. Sounds like you did that.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Hayman

You’re so correct Richard! I did manage to end up exactly where I needed to be.

I remember hearing a comedian 30 ago talking about being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. He said his answer was, “Retired”. That’s stuck with me for decades because it’s how I’ve always felt. I can keep busy all day long just puttering around the house. I like to clean and cook and train my dogs. I like to do small household repairs. I like to just sit for an hour or two and listen to podcasts or watch YouTube videos. There are endless ways I can happily spend my days doing things other than working.

I’m not sure I would have ever been passionate about any job.

Ormode
Ormode
1 year ago

You’ve got a sweet deal, the sort of job millions of people would love to have. At a non-profit, they won’t kick you out in a reorg or outsource your job to India. You could probably keep working until 70 if you want, and that is the key too retiring well if you only have a modest salary.

parkslope
parkslope
1 year ago
Reply to  Ormode

My former college was forced to eliminate many support jobs last year and also suspended retirement contributions for all employees. Things are better this year but only 50% of retirement funding has been restored.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago
Reply to  parkslope

Yep–I was going to say that working at a college (at least in a non-tenured position), isn’t quite as stable of a job as it once was. Many colleges let staff members go last year at the start of the pandemic.

I sometimes fear my own job may eventually become unnecessary. 24 years ago, the lab exercises being taught were very ‘hands on’ and involved using multiple organisms. A large amount of equipment was necessary and I was responsible for making hundreds of reagents for the students to use. These days the labs are simpler and many are computer and theory based exercises.

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
1 year ago

Hi Kristine, my daughter works in a laboratory in Massachusetts as a technologist , with a bachelor’s degree and two years experience. The degrees of her peers range from just an associates to Master’s, and annual base salary is about $85,000 plus overtime .(which is frequent ). The benefits are excellent by today’s standards (no defined benefit pension but a very good matching 401k). Not sure about retiree medical , but current health insurance and other paid benefits are top notch . All of the managers have only bachelor’s degrees and make well over 100k. They all have decades of experience . The hours are long however. Sixty to Seventy hours a week seems to the norm.

I am not sure that never taking time out of the work force makes a difference in final pay. I’ve read that, but I think the difference may be the type of job . At least it wasn’t true for me. I took seven years off and was able to get back in with a high salary. I have two Master’s degrees but if I had to do my career over, I’d never get them. The good news is my employer paid 100% of my expenses. The downside is I think I would have done just about as well without them. And I spent a lot of time commuting to class and studying (time away from family) that obviously I will never get back. Like you, I wasn’t passionate about my career. I retired early (I had retiree medical) and never looked back.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago

Hi Paula.

Yes, I failed to mention some of the other ‘perks’ of my job. For one, full-time status is defined as working 37.5 hours per week. We get Friday afternoons off in the summer. The job has a set schedule of M-F 8:30-5:00 with an hour for lunch. Those perks, along with a retirement contribution equal to 10% of our salary, make the job a perfect fit for me.

The job I had prior to the one at the college was at a hospital laboratory. We had mandatory weekend shifts and mandatory overtime. The pay was good, the benefits weren’t bad. If I had stuck around with them, I imagine I’d be making over $100K by now.

For me, the trade off of lower salary for better benefits was a no-brainer.

Thanks for your comments!
Kristine

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
1 year ago

Thanks for sharing Kristine. As others have said, comparing compensation is fraught with difficulty. I spent most of my career working on contracts for the federal government. Over my career there seemed to be a shift from paying a person based on their credentials (degree, years experienced) to paying based on the job requirements. This was challenge for many of our more senior employees who had had reached higher levels of job title, and higher compensation. At the transition to a new 5 year contract, the pay available for some positions was based on market conditions, not the current salary of the person performing the role. This was caused primarily by the maturing of the industry – work could be performed by less experienced engineers, or some of it had been automated. This was a big blow to many individuals who wanted to continue doing the same job, but not wanting to have their level and salary reduced. Those of us who wanted to improve our careers had to embrace change, take on additional challenges and responsibility. It was not an easy time.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

My employment situation is a bit complicated by the fact that I work at a very small college. I don’t know the precise number of staff members we have, but I suspect there aren’t more than 300 of us, spread across numerous departments. In my job, there is nowhere to go–no promotions available, no lateral moves to make. I can stick around and accept my annual raise (typically between 1.5% to 3%) or I can leave.

Complicating the picture, however, is the fact that I’m eligible for a lucrative early retirement benefit that was discontinued for new employees about 20 years ago. I suspect the salaries offered to new hires may be based on the fact that those employees won’t receive the same benefits package the old-timers like myself are eligible for.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 year ago

Just be careful depending on the early retirement benefit. My employer took away our health, Rx and dental benefits for over 65 retirees despite the fact they were negotiated. Once retired no promise is guaranteed, sad but true. Just have a backup plan if you can until you reach age 65.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I have no idea if the college I work for will be able to continue the generous retiree health care benefits they offer or not. They discontinued the benefit I’m eligible for about 20 years ago so new employees don’t even have it as an option. I certainly hope I can take advantage of it for…forty-five years or so.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 year ago

Kristine, comparing salaries has so many variables it’s nearly impossible. And comparing by age or degree is fruitless.

A higher degree may get a person a good first job but there after it’s not a measure of anything. From that point on it “what have you done for me lately” in terms of adding value for the employer.

There were many times in my career when I earned more that others with advanced degrees. Supervising others or not is also a factor in pay when valuing a job.

You touched on one factor which is the non cash and often tax free compensation in benefits. Most people do not have the benefits you – or I – do. That can easily add 30-40% more to compensation.

You chose as I did to stay with a job long term. That can be a disadvantage in terms of cash pay because people who move around typically get more money each time. But long-term employment has its advantages, some of which you mention.

I knew many times in my career that peers in other companies were making way more than I was sometimes with fewer responsibilities. They also worked in larger organizations in different industries. I could have sought a better job, but I weighed the security, the total compensation, the fact I would never be relocated and the authority and relationships I enjoyed- so I stayed for fifty years.

Your last statement is not necessarily true. It depends on the market.

Also, why should a person come new to a company and earn more than a longer term person doing the same job? Often the answer is they bring more and varied experience because they worked other places. Valid or not that’s the reality.

The sad truth is that a long term employee is often taken for granted, perceived as not going anywhere and possibly instead of showing loyalty is perceived as just an average worker.

Finally, there is the very difficult factor of individual performance. That’s a big factor and very sensitive. I don’t know how it is these days but trying to evaluate a woman, or a minority fairly and honestly is not easy because the employer and sometimes the workers start out from a perception of unfairness.

I once gave a women who had worked for me many years a mediocre performance rating , not great but not really bad, mostly needs improvement. She was very upset as she saw herself a star. Shortly after, she filed integrity charges against me claiming I misappropriated funds (I in fact never had access to) and that a vendor was leasing a car for me. I went though hell for weeks under investigation.

The next evaluation was just routine, several levels above me reviewed everything I wrote, but in the process the woman ruined her career through her actions. She ended up retiring twenty years later doing the same job. No manager thought it worth the risk to tell her the truth.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I had my own interesting HR experience about a decade ago. The college hired an outside firm to re-evaluate all staff jobs and come up with a new classification and salary ladder. Every staff member was given an extensive survey to fill out about their own job. We were told to answer all the questions honestly. Many of the questions involved how difficult our jobs were, how often we felt ‘challenged’ by our jobs, etc.

My job isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. It requires some basic accounting skills, an ability to plan and quite a lot of organizational skills. Even though I have a graduate degree, it certainly wouldn’t be a necessity to perform my job.

I answered the survey honestly, saying me job was of moderate difficulty and that there wasn’t a lot of ‘challenge’ to it. I was rewarded by being down-graded in my salary classification. Meanwhile, I was asked to review another staff members answers to the same survey. Their job was similar to mine, but with fewer overall responsibilities. They answered that their job was ‘highly difficult’ and full of challenges. They were rewarded with a step up on the salary ladder.

It was the single most frustrating experience of my career.

Chazooo
Chazooo
1 year ago

Welcome to the world of highly-paid corporate consultants who provide the desired results and serve as the target for any hatred their duties create as a valuable tool of upper management.

kristinehayes2014
kristinehayes2014
1 year ago
Reply to  Chazooo

I will say there hasn’t been another attempt at creating a new classification/salary ladder at our college since this particular incident.

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 year ago

That stinks. Usually when that happens the incumbent is grandfathered in without immediate downgrade.

parkslope
parkslope
1 year ago
Reply to  R Quinn

In view of the fact that the charges your subordinate did not allege gender discrimination when she filed charges against you, I fail to see why you assumed that her grievance with you was based on a perception of gender discrimination. Do you honestly believe that a disgruntled white male would have been less likely to have filed integrity charges against you?

R Quinn
R Quinn
1 year ago
Reply to  parkslope

You had to know the party involved to understand.

parkslope
parkslope
1 year ago
Reply to  R Quinn

The characteristics of one individual can’t explain your blanket statement about women and minorities.

Last edited 1 year ago by parkslope
IAD
IAD
1 year ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I actually have to agree with you about the variables in salaries. As a hiring manager, there are so many factors from education, experience, security clearances, location, etc. Once hired, performance plays a significant part in raises as does just dumb luck- one department having a higher pool that year for raises than another.

Free Newsletter

SHARE