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A goal we all have as employees is to be compensated in a way that’s commensurate with the value we bring to our organization. In this sense, the relationship between employer and employee can be adversarial. The simplistic view of this relationship is roughly as follows. Businesses need to control costs, and salaries + benefits are expensive. Employees see their experience & skills growing, and expect to earn at a progressively higher rate over time as a result. Small businesses tend to adjust compensation packages as the need arises. Large businesses tend to have formal review processes that guarantee regular compensation review, although often limit the earning potential of high performers.
The organization an employee works for usually has control when it comes to compensation, and some people feel helpless as a result. But the fact of the matter is that employees (let’s say…you) can take control back, if you’re willing to do some work and take on some risk. When control is with you, you have a greater likelihood of earning what you’re worth. Here are some thoughts.
Understand what you’re really worth.
The first aspect of taking control of your compensation is understanding what you should actually be compensated. This is a more complicated issue than it sounds, as several elements go into the equation.
- Your geographic location. Where you live has a bearing on what you’ll be compensated. For example, businesses located in metropolitan areas with high costs of living tend to pay people higher salaries so that the job makes financial sense.
- Your time in the profession. This is known as experience, and it plays a part. Even in networking where a rapidly rising CCNP has the skills to build a complex network, experience is a unique teacher that organizations are willing to pay more for. The CCNP who’s been networking for 2-3 years will possibly be compensated less than the one who’s been networking for over a decade.
- Your provable skills. In IT jobs, specific skills that map to the software and hardware a business relies on to run make a difference. For those earlier in their career, vendor certifications are a decent way to demonstrate your proficiency, at least on paper.
Take your experience, location, and skillset and map it to a salary survey to get a general idea of what you’re actually worth. Note that salary surveys published by popular magazines are interesting, but I hesitate to call them scientific. From what I’ve seen over the years, the sample sets are small and the respondents self-selecting. But as a general guideline, they’re useful. For US residents looking for more detailed salary data, try the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Overview of BLS Wage Data by Area and Occupation.
Understand what you want to earn.
This is a harder data point to determine than it might sound like, and it’s a pressing one. The answer is not as simple as, “I want to be rich.” Instead, think through, in hard dollar figures, what you need to earn to sustain the lifestyle that you’d like to live. This will vary widely from person to person. I could wax philosophical about this, but my real message here is that there’s some amount of earning you need to do during the course of a calendar year to meet whatever your personal goals are. Figure that out.
Set a course of action.
The idea is to build a plan to get from where you are to where you would like to be. In networking, there’s several ways to bridge the gap (assuming there is one).
- Be willing to change jobs. Realize that with the very rarest of exceptions, no organization you work for cares about you as an individual. Not really. You are on your own. Therefore, be cautious when feeling a strong loyalty to an organization; that loyalty will almost never be reciprocated. This is a harsh reality, and I don’t mean to minimize the relationships we have with people at the workplace. But the people you work with are not the company you work for. When the company lays people off, misses a payroll, withholds bonuses, etc. you’ll be a victim as likely as anyone else, no matter how much everyone likes each other. Companies are entities all their own that exist far more in a financial sense than an interpersonal one. The idea that “our people are our product” is perhaps both warm AND fuzzy, but the idea that overrides it is “cash flow is our life.” That’s not cynical; it’s business. You’ll go out the door if the business requires it to survive, so look out for yourself. Your company isn’t going to look out for you any more than it has to. Once you’re used to that idea, a whole world of organizations that need your skills open up to you. Almost every organization in the world needs networking professionals. That said, diligently and maturely try to work out a satisfactory career path where you’re at. But when that doesn’t happen, look elsewhere, and do that looking guilt-free.
- Improve your skills. Go learn something. There’s books & blogs to read. There’s online training. There’s certifications. There’s on-the-job experience. There’s home labs. There’s writing, and by that I mean writing *you* do, trying to explain to a reader what it is you’ve learned. There’s even a way cool podcast on networking. Great. Go after knowledge and make it yours. Figure out the best way for you to learn, and then learn something new. If you’re in the knowledge doldrums, row your way out, catch some wind, and sail towards becoming a more capable IT professional. Hard skills will most definitely make you of more value to someone. A common objection here is the cost of gaining access to people and materials you can learn from, and I don’t mean to gloss over that point. I have spent many thousands of my own dollars over the years in training programs, books, and online subscriptions. I will simply say that if you’ll do what it takes to master the knowledge you’re buying access to, it’s money well spent. The first vendor IT training program I ever did came about by refinancing my car, because I had no cash set aside at that time, and I was out of steady work. That was a risk that ultimately paid off, as I was in a hot job market that needed the skills I was training for.
- Take a second job. For many years, I have had a primary job as a network engineer plus varying amounts of secondary income. That secondary income has been in the form of consulting, web hosting, and lately writing & podcasting. The idea is that if you can’t find a day job that meets your income goals, work for yourself doing odds and ends that fill in the income gap. While I know you could have a secondary job working for yet a different employer if the timing was right, I’ve always seen a second job as a way to work for myself and keep a little bit of control over my own financial destiny. My secondary income hasn’t resulted in piles of extra cash, but every dollar you earn is one more than the dollar you didn’t. The secondary job strategy is also useful if you ever lose your primary job; you’ve got your secondary job to fall back on.
New Year’s Thought
Set a goal. Create a plan to reach that goal. Be determined to stick to the plan. Don’t wander through another year of mediocrity and disappointment if you want more from your networking career.
Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
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