Comparing pay

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I've been doing a little research lately on salary comparisons for one of the boards on which I serve. It's been an eye-opening exercise trying to justify or modify salaries when compared with those in a similar field with similar experience and responsibilities.

In all too many ways, I've been comparing apples and oranges.

What is apparent is that there is no fair way to make these comparisons. I spoke with someone who handles a $50 million government budget but whose salary is below a starting junior loan officer in a bank. I also learned of a janitor at a government facility who makes more than a school principal.

The extremes of compensation in our society are obvious. Is any athlete worth Tiger Woods' $125 million annual compensation? Or at the other end of the spectrum, is it fair for some school teachers in our region to qualify for food stamps?

In a more broad discussion, there has been a lot of chatter lately on executive compensation in light of the federal government bailout of the banking industry. If some of those multimillion-dollar executive salaries don't give you pause, then you're not paying attention.

At least in theory, these executives make boodles of money for their customers, so perhaps the millions they are paid are worth their skills. If you compare that with a teenager rapper who uses filthy language for a living and still makes millions, then the Wall Street executive is looking more like a bargain.

As part of my salary research, I stumbled across a list of federal salaries in our region. Actually stumbled is incorrect. Look long enough and this information is obviously public record, though some agencies sure make you work hard to find these little nuggets of information.

Compared to the aforementioned teachers, some of these federal employees -- midrange at best -- are doing very well. Granted, it's that apples and oranges argument again, but common sense tells you which job is more difficult and more important.

If the issue of fairness came into the equation, then teachers and policemen and our military personnel would be paid much more than they are. But we all know that fairness flies out the window when it comes to salaries in most cases.

Here's one little dirty secret that I also discovered. Generally speaking, those with degrees in higher education tend to top the salary scale. But that is not always the case. In fact, the way to pull down relatively big bucks is to garner a federal job, keep it for years and enjoy your retirement. In many instances, no degree required.

Here's the bottom line. You don't always earn what you're worth and you rarely earn what you think you should. And adequate compensation for the value of your job is not always the prime factor.

That doesn't make it right, and it doesn't make it fair. But, as one source told me during my salary search, in today's economy if you have a job, keep it and be thankful. There's someone out there willing to trade places with you in a heartbeat.

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