Pondering the 2017 TechCommNZ salary survey results

June 2018

Image of Facts Icon. It is a sphere made up of words in black typeface. Some of these are unreadable while others say things like We sent out our annual Salary Survey in December. Evidence guru Earnsy Liu gives us the breakdown on the TechCommNZ and ASTC results, and how we compare to our cousins across the ditch. Plus, what not to worry about as a technical communicator in Australasia.

Former TechCommNZ president, Steve Moss, wrote a very good report on the 2017 TechCommNZ salary survey results. It shows at a glance that most respondents are based in Christchurch, have 10-14 years’ experience (although this was dropping), and often write documentation or do editing.

Here’s my take on:

  • the number of respondents
  • their age pattern
  • the salary trend
  • the number of respondents who are self-employed or do contract work.

Number of responses is up – heaps

My first surprise was the number of responses. That’s been trucking along quietly the last few years, then boom! Up 25%. In one year. That’s pretty impressive – the committee’s promotion and recruitment drive is clearly paying off. Well done!

A line graph showing the number of responses is increasing every year. They grew from 113 responses in 2013 to 174 in 2017.

Figure 1: Number of survey responses for the last 5 years. Thirty-five more people responded to the survey than in 2016.

Interesting age pattern

I wondered if technical communicators (TCs) have to worry about an aging workforce. I swung from not worrying about it, to worrying, to not worrying.

Not worrying: A long way from retirement

One in three respondents was between 45 and 54 years old, the largest age bracket. Nowhere near retirement age, and half the respondents were below 45 (Q2). No worries, mate.

A column graph showing the distribution of respondents by age. The columns peak in the middle. The tallest column represents 45 to 54 years, with 57 respondents. Next tallest is the column representing 35 to 44 years, with 47 respondents.

Figure 2: Respondents by 10-year age brackets. The largest group was 45-54 years old (33%). Half were below 45.

How does it compare to the New Zealand workforce? That looks like this:

A line graph showing the percentage of the labour force in different age brackets. Twenty-two per cent are 25 to 34 years old, which is the largest group. In contrast, there are only six per cent who are 65 years and over.

Figure 3: New Zealand's workforce by 10-year age brackets is fairly evenly distributed between the ages of 15 and 64. Source: Statistics NZ: Labour force status by sex by age group (Quarterly-Mar/Jun/Sep/Dec).

Superimpose the survey results and we see two very different age distributions:

A line graph of the labour force by age is superimposed on a line graph of survey respondents by age. Respondents’ ages are significantly more unevenly distributed. For example, 60 per cent of survey respondents are in the 35 to 54 age brackets, compared to only 40 per cent of the workforce.

Figure 4: Comparing the age distribution of the national workforce with survey respondents’. There were far more respondents in the 35-54 bracket than in other brackets.

Proportion 55 and over:

  • National workforce: 24%
  • TC respondents: 18%.

With so few mature respondents, there’s no need to worry about an aging workforce.

Worrying: There aren’t enough successors!

Then it hit me: holy moly, TCs are much more concentrated in the 45-54 age bracket …

  • National workforce: 21%
  • TC respondents: 33%.

… and much fewer TCs are below 35:

  • National workforce: 37%
  • TC respondents: 21%.

As the 45-54s age – sorry, mature – they won’t have enough successors. That’ll be disastrous!

Not worrying: TCs come along later

Eventually I remembered that anecdotally, many TCs don’t set out to be TCs; they become TCs after life in other careers. This could explain the 45–54 concentration. It could also mean there is no need to stress about the seeming lack of younger blood.

Let’s check the data:

  • Over 40% of respondents have no formal technical communication training (Q11). And many have qualifications in other fields such as business studies, computer science, education, engineering, and social and pure sciences.
  • This supports my TC-after-life-elsewhere idea. But it’s tenuous evidence, because someone might have aspired to be a TC but studied something else because there was no tech comm qualification. Also, respondents may have interpreted ‘formal training’ differently.
  • Tech comm experience is more evenly distributed than ages (Q3). If the 45-54s had gone straight into tech comm, say at the age of 25, you’d expect a heap of people with 20–30 years’ experience. Instead, those with 20 years’ experience or more make up the smallest groups (20%). This is still circumstantial evidence, but possibly a bit stronger.

A column graph of respondents’ experience. The column heights are relatively even. There are fewest respondents in the first column – less than 1 year’s experience – and in the last column – 25 years’ experience or more. There are most respondents in the 1 to 3 year column (28 respondents).

Figure 5: Tech comm experience is more evenly distributed than age. The biggest group of respondents have 1–3 years’ experience. Almost the same number of respondents have 10–14 years’ experience. But the 1–3 column only represents 3 years, while the 10–14 column represents 5 years. The latter would probably be shorter if it represented 3 years as well.

This contrasts sharply with the salary survey results of the Australian Society for Technical Communication (ASTC):

A column graph of Australian respondents’ experience. It has a completely different shape to the NZ graph. The first four columns, representing less than ten years’ experience, are very short. The last four columns, representing ten years’ experience or more, are about four times taller, indicating that most respondents are very experienced.

Figure 6: Tech comm experience in the ASTC survey. Seventy of their 84 respondents (83%) have 10 years’ experience or more. Source: Survey snippet: Based on years of experience of technical communicators. Southern Communicator, (42), 6.

Salaries are increasing

Salaries are moving in the right direction (Appendix A of survey report). Figure 7 below shows the percentage of respondents who earn a certain salary or more. The percentage at each salary is higher in 2017 than in previous years, which means salaries are going up. But they’re not higher than 2016. Why?

A graph with five lines representing salaries from 2013 to 2017. The trend is for a greater proportion of respondents in each salary band every year. The exception is 2017, which has smaller proportions in most salary bands than in 2016.

Figure 7: Percentage of TCs at or above a salary. The further right a line is, the higher the salary is. In 2013, 50% of people earned just over $80K. In 2017, 50% earned approximately $85K.

It doesn’t feel like there have been pay cuts. Compared to 2016, the number of people in each salary band has remained the same or increased, with two exceptions (Q17). I suspect in one of those cases they had a pay rise and moved into a higher salary band.

What’s changed is the percentage in each salary band. There are more young TCs (Q2), and more less experienced TCs (Q3) in 2017, so it’s likely there is a greater proportion on lower salaries:

A table showing (a) the number of respondents below 35 years of age, and (b) the number with 3 years’ experience or less. In each case, numbers are steady from 2013 to 2016 but rise sharply in 2017. In 2017 there were 37 respondents below 35 years of age. Nineteen had less than a year’s experience, and 28 had 1–3 years’ experience.

Figure 8: Number of young and less experienced TCs. Until 2016, the numbers remained fairly constant. Are the 2017 figures an anomaly or the beginning of a trend? We’ll have to wait and see.

Number who are contractors and self-employed – watch this space

The number of TCs who do contract work or are self-employed has dipped slightly (Q15). That’s interesting – aren’t we supposed to be seeing the rise of the gig economy (contract and freelance work)?

But if we exclude the 2017 results and look at only the 2013–16 figures, we see that things haven’t really changed. Again, it’s too early to tell if it’s a blip or new trend, especially as the numbers are small.

A line graph with two lines. They are almost parallel from 2013 to 2016, then diverge in 2017. The line representing the number of salaried respondents jumps from 117 in 2016 to 158 in 2017. The line representing the number of contract and self-employed respondents slides from 18 in 2016 to 14 in 2017.

Figure 9: Respondents by employment type. The number of salaried respondents is increasing, but it’s hard to know if the number of those who do contract work or are self-employed is decreasing.

This is another difference between the New Zealand and Australia tech comm scenes. While over 90% of TechCommNZ respondents are salaried, ASTC respondents are closer to 50%:

Two stacked bar graphs. The top graph is of TechCommNZ respondents. 92 per cent of them are salaried, while 8 per cent work contract or are self-employed. The bottom graph shows ASTC respondents. Only 48 per cent are salaried. 46 per cent work contract or are self-employed. Six per cent are not working.

Figure 10: Employment type in New Zealand compared to Australia. Are employment cultures in the two countries so different? Source: Survey snippet: Comparing types of employment. Southern Communicator (42), 15.

To conclude

The results suggest things are looking good for TCs:

  • There were 25% more respondents in 2017 than in 2016.
  • TCs may not need to worry about an aging workforce. Although most respondents are aged 45-54 and not many are below 35, it is likely that TCs become TCs later in life.
  • Salaries are increasing.