Editorial: What’s in a Title?

by Rick Sanchez, VP of Communication

A post on the STC Houston Forum prompts additional consideration to title and salary issues that have ignited debate in the STC community. In the post, the author asks the community to consider providing their opinions regarding the “implication that employees can’t be trusted as much as corporations in reporting [salary or compensation] data.” The petition for opinions stems from what the author read on Tieline, which is also on the official STC.org Salary Survey web page. The text that inspired the author to write reads, in part, as follows:

In previous years, STC surveyed its members to gather salary information. Now we use the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment Survey (OES). This survey provides greater coverage—it samples 1.25 million business establishments—and is more credible because the data are reported by employers rather than employees (HR departments distrust employee-reported salary data, as respondents have been known to inflate numbers in hopes of boosting raises). As HR departments usually file the OES questionnaire with BLS, they are familiar with the data and are more likely to use the OES than what they perceive as self-serving association surveys.

STC is currently analyzing the OES data to determine the best way to present it to the membership. The survey results will be available later this year.

Such words make one question a) why the STC has elected not to contend the implication, and b) why the STC elected to stop producing the survey for, if nothing else, the sake of comparison. Would it not be interesting to see a standard deviation comparison between the two results? Perhaps that makes the eagerly awaited U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) salary figures for technical writers that much more suspenseful.

At the source of the debate, as you may have read, is the discrepancy between title, job functions, and compensation for those roles. The ostensible consensus is that, while the BLS has a superior population sample to survey, the BLS may have a myopic view or description of the profession. That begs the question: Who has a better perspective?

At the September 11, 2007, monthly STC Houston meeting, Jack Molisani presented “How to Make a Six Figure Income as a Technical Communicator.” During his presentation, Jack evoked, among other caveats and nuggets of information, the potential trappings that arise between title, job roles, and earning potential. Apparently, he is not alone in preferring the title of Technical Communicator. Whether perceptual or practical, the discrepancies in earnings seem to favor those with the title of Technical Communicator; however, to date the BLS does not recognize the title.

Moreover, according the STC, the BLS does not recognize the accuracy of the STC Salary survey. Whether it is appropriate to quote the allegedly dubious STC salary survey conclusions is still up for debate. Nonetheless, Jack Molisani’s presentation, while supporting the existing gap between an average technical writer and a six-figure earning potential, elected to use the allegedly higher STC salary survey results. What if Jack had used the BLS numbers, which are lower than those he presented?

By using the lower BLS number, would the gap between the average and six-figure income seem unattainable by comparison, or would everyone in the Houston audience question the lower BLS numbers? Interestingly enough, everyone in the room accepted the STC salary survey numbers as appropriate.

Regardless of why Jack used the STC salary survey figures, to some people, the answer to which salary figures to refer is centered on the axiom of which organization knows its constituents best: the BLS or the STC. In search of an answer, one would ask additional questions such as these:

  • By acquiescence to the BLS, is the STC admitting that its constituents inflate the numbers?
  • Why would the STC stop producing the survey during this debate?
  • If the differences existed previously why isn’t there a push to substantiate the difference?

If the discrepancies between STC and BLS are to be reconciled, then, regardless of the technical writer or technical communicator title, the duties of the roles should match the reported compensation results. That is where the STC salary survey provided “added value.” To some, the STC Salary Survey provided a fine-tuned, custom view of statistical salary comparisons. Why stop producing it now?