Reality check

Use salary surveys to ensure you get your share when pay raises come back into vogue

Thirty years ago, Corky Pawlak, a respected master machinist, told me, 'You can't justifiably claim to be underpaid until you accept a job that pays more. That struck me as a bit of timeless wisdom, a bit of truth underlying capitalism at its finest. But the issue of being underpaid seldom arises, however, unless something generates a feeling of uncertainty about the current state of remuneration.

Please join me for a dive into the morass we call the Web in search of zero-cost, non-commercial, registration-free resources that reveal practical information about salary benchmarking, cost-of-living indices and other information that might be of value now that the economy is improving. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.

A disclaimer is in order, though. There's no guarantee the reported salaries are statistically representative. Sample sizes might be too small to achieve statistical significance. The results might be biased upward because people who feel underpaid can be reticent about blabbing that fact to the whole world.

Appropriate salaries
The first leg of our journey takes us to a non-profit organization based in Whittier, Calif. The Structural Engineers Association of Southern California is attempting to construct a worldwide database of engineering salaries. The coolest feature is that you can query the database and cut and paste raw data to a spreadsheet for offline analysis. For example, you might be interested in sorting the data by annual salary, highest degree earned, years of experience and professional registration. The only difficulty is that the data is delivered in units of 30 entries. This four-element search requires 37 screens to present fully. That's a lot of cut-and-paste, so you've got to be motivated. But, it is cool. If you're going to use this site, at least have the decency to add your numbers to the fray. In the long run, it will help everyone out there in readerland. Give your mouse a shovel and dispatch to www.seaint.org/SalarySurvey/ for some data mining.


It's easy to access this salary database.

Another free but lightweight salary survey is available from Abbott, Langer & Associates Inc., Crete, Ill. In the case of plant professionals, you can find a one-page list of salary numbers for directors, managers, supervisors and non-supervisory engineers. The report summarizes the 375-page 'Compensation of Plant/Facilities Maintenance/Engineering Managers and Engineers, 7th Edition - 2003'report the company has for sale. Mouse your way to www.abbottlanger.com/aipesumm.html for the scoop.

Bay Area Library & Information, San Mateo, Calif., also is in the survey game. Although the top half of the page at www.jobstar.org/tools/salary/sal-comp.cfm focuses on aspects of the computer industry, scroll to the lower half to access the salary surveys for engineers.
There's another survey at www.machinedesign.com/, the Web site for Machine Design magazine. Enter 'salary survey'in the search box found in the upper right corner and click the green 'Go'to access several articles that appeared in its pages. Keep in mind that the participants were readers of that publication and, if the title is truly indicative, probably not too involved in the day-to-day quest for outstanding plant engineering and maintenance success, as you folks are. Nevertheless, it can be useful background data.

The Web site operated by PayScale Inc., Seattle, reports only median salaries. If you rank a string of selected salary values from low to high, you'll find the median in the exact middle. Half the entries exceed the median, the rest fall short. Select a different population based on city, industry, experience, employer type, gender, age, degree, school, company sales, size of firm or work shift, and you'll get a different median. Each value, however, gives you a clearer picture of your paycheck. Send your mouse to the middle of www.payscale.com/salary-survey/ to gather more data.

Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, provides job offer data (high, low, mean, median) for graduates in chemical, civil, environmental, electrical, computer, materials science and mechanical engineering at the bachelor, master and doctorate levels. The data is incomplete where fewer than four graduating students reported their data. Check out the latest buzz in salary compression at www.studentaffairs.cmu.edu/career/employ/salary/cit.html.
In contrast, Human Resources Programs Development and Improvement, Richmond, Va., lists summary statistics for engineering and manufacturing salaries as furnished by HR departments in participating companies, not employees who self-report. This database is found at www.wageweb.com.

The salary survey on the Baker Thomsen Associates, Vancouver, Wash., site www.salaryexpert.com/ requires a bit more work. In addition to entering a job title and geographic location, you'll need to indicate the number of years you've been doing it, your current salary and three major job functions or responsibilities. From there, it flows by itself. The bottom of the home page has a cost-of-living calculator that requires answering sometimes rather ambiguous questions about costs. You might be asked the costs for electricity, a typical office visit to your doctor and taxes on your house. The questions appear to be situation-specific. I tried several inputs for salary, current city and destination city, and faced different questions for each attempt.

Another site is by Salary Wizard, based in Needham, Mass. The opening screen lists quite a few generic job titles from which to select, but a clear listing of the corresponding job duties doesn't appear until the second screen. It may take some trial and error to get it right, and it may list only an approximation of the duties. Anyway, visit www.salary.com/ to start the quest. But, beware the The Cost of Living Wizard. It uses several screens to request information about the city and job. Each screen reveals more tidbits of info, but several screens into it, it asks the key question whether you're worth that salary in that location. Then you'll discover the free ride has ended and access to further info has a price.

Cost of living
How much you make isn't nearly as important as how much you manage to save. The immutable economic law that connects supply and demand so intimately is responsible for the wide variation in the cost of living in different parts of the country. Before you start dreaming about a job half-way across the continent, you might want to know about the cost of food, clothing and shelter in those greener pastures.

Although Thomas Carlyle tagged economics with the moniker 'dismal science' , it can tell us much about how well we're beating the cost of living. The American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Mass., posts an online calculator at www.aier.org/cgi-aier/colcalculator.cgi that lets you determine the value of your pay history in real dollars. The method is based on the consumer price index data our hired hands at the Bureau of Labor Statistics publish each month. It compares dollar values for any two years going as far back as 1913. To use it, enter your salary when hired and the year you started working. Set '2004'in the lower field and click 'Calculate'to see what you'd have to earn today just to break even. If your current salary exceeds the calculated amount, you're better off than many. While you're at the site, click on 'Business-Cycle Updates'and scroll to the bottom of the page to see the company's list of leading, coincident and lagging statistical indicators.

Planning the move
Patrick C. Alguire's article, 'Moving' , can serve as a handy how-to reference before you start your migration to riches. Keep in mind that the moving industry is only lightly regulated, if at all. The article can help keep you from stumbling into a scam at a time you least need the aggravation. Shuffle that mouse to www.acponline.org/counseling/moving-doc.htm where you can learn about the advice the medical profession gets before a move.

Scout the neighborhood
Before moving across town, most people already know about the target neighborhood. Gathering such intelligence from across the country is more problematic. Thanks to the Web, you can get a reading on the far-off neighborhood, including population demographics, cost-of-living breakdown by category, meteorological data and indices on air quality, crime and culture. Punch up realestate.yahoo.com/re/neighborhood/main.html and scroll down the page. Click on the state and pick a city from a comprehensive list on the following screen. While you're there, you can get a reading on the local schools. That link is on the left side of the page.

Tranquil acres
Only the military intentionally moves into a war zone. Business might be a constant battle, but participants shouldn't have to contend with hot lead. As part of your advance intelligence gathering about the relative crime rates of two cities, you might want to take advantage of the offerings of the National Association of Realtors, Chicago. Fire off a live mouse to www.homefair.com and click on 'Relocation Crime Lab'found on the left side.

Moving expenses
The salary for a given job might depend on where that work takes place. Before you run off to do the same work in another part of the country, consider the cost of getting you and your stuff to greener pastures. MoveSource Inc., a bonded transportation broker in St. Clair Shores, Mich., offers an estimate of moving cost and can connect you with several cross-country movers. Unfortunately, the setup on this site is somewhat awkward. Destination cities are listed in alpha order, not by state or region, which makes it difficult to find the closest city for which the site has data. Nevertheless, moving your trusty mouse to 207.148.194.102/movesource/cost.asp will reveal part of the cost of the pursuit of financial reward. 
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