Private Sector Pay - How Does This Compare to Academic Salaries?

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It's a common problem: staff in universities and colleges work just as hard as those in the private sector, but fail to reap the same rewards. Is that perception accurate and, if so, just what is on offer across the great divide? And are there any drawbacks involved in the world outside academia?

A Question of Balance

Let's begin with a comment from someone who has experienced both work styles.

"When I started lecturing" reports Rob, who began life as an artist and designer, before moving to the university sector, "I was stunned by how low the money was." This may confirm all your worst suspicions, but he continues, "Now I've been in this type of work for a few years, I see hidden benefits. With kids to put through college, I appreciate the steady salary. My daily pay as a lecturer is equivalent to what I earned per hour in design, but at least I know what will be in my pay packet each month. As you age, your creative skills are less in demand and you never know where the next job might come from." Rob has the best of both worlds: he can supplement his teaching income with sometimes elusive and sporadic design work.

There are numerous examples of those who have achieved good salaries and made successful careers in the private sector that wouldn't be possible in HE. Louise has worked in advertising for more than 25 years and, despite never having studied for a degree, her salary nudges the £70k mark - which would be even more if she lived in London. Clare, meanwhile, has done a degree and earns £37,000 after just 2 years in the media sector in London. Redundancy presents very clear and present dangers and Louise has suffered this fate twice, with several near misses in between. Most "meeja" folk accept an average of three redundancies in their career as an occupational hazard.

You might argue that the jobs described so far are notoriously unstable, and therefore more lucrative. Is it different in "pure" commerce and industry? In fact, the biggest salaries are in areas such as law, banking/finance and IT. Secretarial and reception staff in some of these companies may be earning money that equates with a lecturing or senior administrative scale in academia. Higher up the ladder, partners in big law or finance firms expect to be on well over £120,000, with middle tier staff averaging between £50-£80,000.

Peter's job as senior computer analyst with a City investment bank is remarkably well paid for someone still in his mid 30s who finished studying after A-levels. He was coy about the actual sum, but it is edging towards six figures. He has a lovely house and a growing family, but sees very little of either. His working hours by far exceed time spent at home and, like most staff at this level, he has to keep in touch with the office even when on holiday. If you estimated the hours worked for that hefty salary, his actual daily rate is not so attractive.

The Down Side

Perhaps we need to look beyond these figures, which are commanded only in the biggest companies.

Elaine is a middle manager in a well regarded City financial institution. Aged 52, her salary is in the mid £60,000s, roughly the same as her brother's - a human resources officer in the NHS. However, she reckons to spend more time "at work" than he does, as she's not paid for travelling around Europe on business. This necessitates regular dawn flights, followed by late evening returns and a 9am start the next day. "Whether I'm travelling or at home, my evenings aren't necessarily my own either, because there's a certain amount of networking and socialising needed". Time off in lieu is not an option in these circles and neither are long holidays. Academic vacations are a well worn chestnut, but even administrative and support staff in education are well served compared to the average private sector worker for whom 20 per annum days is the norm.

Andy, a recent graduate, works in the marketing department of a property company. He voices another factor to redress the balance. He earns £30k plus car, loves his job, and thrives on the autonomy. Having parents who have always worked in the public sector, he sees one big difference. "The buck stops here. If I mess up, the company loses financially and my job is on the line. I certainly wouldn't get more than one further chance to make good." Academia is generally more forgiving: while mistakes are to be avoided, they may not dent, let alone damage, your career.

Perking Up

One often hears of "perks", an ill-defined element, but one popularly believed (in academia) to enhance private sector salaries beyond the dreams of avarice. A quick check appears to verify this.

David, a sales manager, told how his firm kept an apartment in a Mediterranean resort which staff could use for free. Accountant Mike was plied with complimentary tickets to prestigious venues, his favourites being seats for rugby internationals and a box at the last night of the Proms. Elaine, as quoted above, enjoys these events, although there is always a sub text: "you are meant to press the flesh and the small talk is not without a business purpose".

Many people pointed out that some perks were as much to the employers' advantage as to the employees. Private health care raises the expectation of less absences or taking these at times that suit the firm. Company supplied technology means you are accessible at times when you'd prefer to be incognito. Elaine: "I'm not allowed to use my Blackberry for personal reasons - even to say I'm going to be late back from the office. But the boss can call me whenever he likes!"

And then there are bonuses. Most private sector workers receive at least one bonus per year, sometimes profit based, although they may also be performance related. If the company has done badly, all workers are penalised. Worse, if specific employees have not hit the right targets, they are denied this extra income. Given the variables affecting individual performance and the lack of objectivity in some appraisals, justice is not always done. Paul, another accountant, reckons, somewhat cynically, that bonuses are "just an excuse for not giving you a rise" - a telling reminder that annual increments and pay awards are optional outside the public sector. He also deplores the secrecy surrounding salaries and bonuses - "you never know how much the person next to you is being paid which creates a lot of suspicion".

The Last Word

Kate has worked in human resources for numerous private companies before coming to academia. "There are private organisations paying very well and those who pay extremely badly. Bonuses are not always fair, nor as massive as some believe. While pay generally outstrips the public sector, pension arrangements in the latter are often much sounder and there is more security and support for workers - unions are unknown or ineffective in some private companies."

So while there maybe instant advantages in terms of pay, the private sector is often less rewarding in terms of freedom, job security and pensions, and the academic sector does actually have some major perks to offer.

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