11.5   Why is What You are Paid so Important?

Getting paid what you are worth is extremely important to your career success. Your first job and the salary you are paid after finishing college frequently sets the tone for your entire career. Think about it, every time your salary is computed for a raise and every time you are considered for a promotion your job titles and salary history are used to come up with a decision on whether you should be hired, promoted, or receive a raise as well as how much that raise should be.

What you are paid determines both how you will live and your potential career growth over time. In this culture your career is a huge part of your identity. Getting a competitive salary is an equity issue. Set your standard. Figure out what you are worth. If you undervalue yourself other people will undervalue you. You are the person who is in control of your value. If you have done your homework you should be in a position to decide whether an offer is acceptable based on solid information gained from your research.

Accepting a bad offer can slow your career way down or even sour you on your field. Think about it. You have spent countless hours in college developing knowledge and skills preparing yourself for a career. You may also have some significant work experience. How long did it take to get your degree and qualifications? Do you really want to jump at a substandard job? Wouldn't it be a good idea to invest some time in your job search just as you have in your education? Rejecting offers that do not meet your minimum standards allows you the time you need to continue looking for the job that is right for you.

When the market is tight you hear repeatedly that jobs are scarce and that you should grab what you can get. But even in the tightest market there are jobs for qualified candidates who know how to look, and where to look for good jobs. There is always a market for talented individuals. If you do not know how to look, hire a career coach.

Do you have to start at the bottom? Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, if you start your career at the bottom of an organization you will most likely stay there. You will get pegged as a low achiever. Yes, there are stories about people who have managed to climb in an organization from administrative assistant or janitor to CEO but they are few and far between, and I have yet to meet any of them.

It can take nerves of steel to reject an unacceptable position or to negotiate for the best possible salary. It also takes confidence that something better will come along if you reject a substandard offer. Sometimes it is the job of the career coach to give people permission to reject unacceptable jobs. You can give yourself permission if you know the job is not right. Why settle for something you know will fail? Keep looking until you find the right job. The payoff: you get a job where you can thrive.

It is a well worn myth that you should "just get in" and then move up. One woman that I coached had just returned to the US from Australia where she had played on a national soccer team after graduating from college. Upon returning to the US two years later, she was ready to put her degree in business management to work. She was looking for a job in high end fashion retail management but figured she would have to start at the bottom as a sales clerk anywhere. I explained to her that companies do not post all of their positions on their web sites. I suggested that rather than starting as a retail sales clerk, that she could target her most desirable company first and start her career as a retail management trainee. Great companies need talent to keep their businesses running. Companies hire college graduates from a variety of majors into all kinds of great professional trainee positions. She was hired within days of our work together at Nordstrom's. We worked for a total of four hours developing a career focus, a targeted resume and a solid career plan. It took no time at all. She didn't have settle for "just getting in".

Another story - a woman called me to ask for career advice regarding her position with a high tech firm. As a new graduate, she was an electronics engineer, hired at the same time as several men. When asked by the interviewer what her salary expectations were she quoted a salary of half of the competitive salaries for electronics engineers at the time. She thought if she sold herself cheaply she would be more attractive. She was insecure about her knowledge and skills, even though she had graduated with honors and had had several internships in the field. Her reasoning was that the employer expectations would be lower if she asked for less and so she would be under less pressure. After she got hired she figured that she would be able to prove her worth and recover to reach salary parody later. 

Four years later the young woman called and indicated that she was still severely underpaid and that she was never given anything but technician level work to do. She was under paid and under valued. Now she was asking be what she should do. She was underemployed and her knowledge was stale. She had not gotten the opportunity to develop or update her skills over time with challenging work or training available to the engineers. I helped her untangle the mess she had gotten into - recommending that she go back to school and work on a master's degree as a way of hitting the restart button.

If you do your homework and negotiate for a competitive salary you will not have to do a restart on a stalled out career. 

The serious job seeker sets their goals at an appropriately high level, commensurate with their education, skills and experience. I often hear people say, "I will take an administrative position and work my way up" or "I will take a technician level position just to get my foot in the door". That may work occasionally for some people but is is a very circuitous path to getting where you want to be. Aim for the dust and you will end up in the dust. My advice is to set your goals and aim for where you want to be if you ever hope to get there.

Sometimes looking for work requires surviving while you are looking. You may wish to take a survival job that allows you to pay your bills but also affords you the time to look for an appropriate career position.