For a long time now, I have wanted to weigh in on the ever prominent question of “How important is my first salary?” There has been a lot of talk about this subject lately, and it is absolutely something you should be thinking about.
If you follow my articles, you’ll notice that a common thread between most of them is that there is no one right answer for everyone. In this case, I think the answer depends on which of two major career groups you belong to: people starting out at the bottom and working their way up or people starting at higher levels or specialized positions.
Starting at the Bottom and Working Your Way Up
In many industries you’ll find yourself starting at the very bottom and working your way up the ladder of authority. Such industries include marketing, design, and some forms of IT, among many others. In these industries, people often start off as interns, assistants, or in administrative roles – all roles known for lower pay grades.
If you are starting out with a low authority or unspecialized job, your first salary isn’t very important because you will most likely move on (and up) from there. The most important aspect of this kind of position is simply getting your foot in the door and gaining necessary industry experience. No one becomes a marketing exec or magazine editor without doing a lot of grunt work first.
With that in mind, it is important to be aware of the average salary for your position based on location in order to ensure you are not being underpaid or taken advantage of. A great tool for this is the Bureau of Labor Statistics, where you can see average wage data based on your job, state, and metropolitan area. While your first salary may not be very important in determining your salary throughout your career, it is always important to make sure you are being fairly compensated for your time and effort.
Starting Off in a Higher Level or More Specialized Position
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are a lot of people who go into specialized careers that often requires extra schooling, (e.g., the medical field, engineering, coding/programming, etc.). People in these fields often start out with relatively high levels of authority. You can’t just jump into these positions and learn as you go. You need to know what you’re doing well beforehand.
For these kinds of jobs, your first salary does matter. This is because you are coming in at a higher level than other people at the organization, which means you have less room to grow. Every industry has a ceiling.
Think of it this way: If you start out as an administrative assistant but work your way up to an executive or CEO, you’ve basically gone from 0 to 100. However, if you start off as a doctor or engineer, you can really only become more experienced in your role. Instead of going from 0 to 100 in your career, you’re starting off at 65 or 70.
Because there is less growth in specialized careers, your first salary sets the tone for all the jobs to come. Companies often ask what your previous salary was so that they can give you a proportional salary increase (and sometimes save themselves a little bit of money).
In a specialized career, your first salary does matter, but if you do find yourself underpaid and overachieving, there is a way to remedy the situation. It all comes down to knowledge and confidence.
How to Remedy the Situation If You’ve Already Accepted a Lower Wage
This actually goes for both specialized and unspecialized positions: Let’s say you find yourself severely underpaid based on statistics and your accomplishments. When you go to interview for other positions, make sure you are armed with facts and evidence to support your desired pay increase. A great way to explain your situation to an interview is as follows:
“I am aware that I am being underpaid at my current job. However, I have learned X, Y, and Z from this experience/job. Based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics data regarding the average pay for this position in this location, as well as my accomplishments in the areas of A and B, I’m aiming for a salary of $X.”
If you give a statement like this, you will come off as knowledgeable, confident, and motivated. Having evidence of your achievements and statistics to back up your requested salary will also show interviewers that you are not being unreasonable.
If you’re wondering how important your first salary is, you can answer that question by thinking about how specialized your career is and whether or not there is room to grow. And, if you’ve already accepted a low salary, you can fix it by doing your research, itemizing your accomplishments, and showing people why you deserve more money.