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Figuring out where you fall on the pay scale

Am I paid enough?

It's a question everyone occasionally asks, but what is a fair salary for your type of job in your state or city?

Figuring out compensation can be tricky. "It's like houses," says Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation for, a Web site that posts compensation information. "Two houses may have similar floor plans and the same amount of space, but they aren't identical."

Coleman says the best way to accurately answer the compensation question is to round up as much information from as many sources as you can. Then weigh the reliability of the information.

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"Your next-door neighbor may be adamant in his belief that the right salary is $30,000," says Coleman. "But what is his point of reference, and what makes that a real answer?" Instead, Coleman recommends using the various numbers you collect to arrive at a salary range.

Cyber salary search
The Web is a good place to start your compensation search.

In addition to, other commercial sites that offer income information include JobStar and TrueCareers. WageWeb is designed for companies to compare going rates for jobs, but employees can peruse the data, too. For the official, government word on wages, check out the Department of Labor Statistics.

Information found on these sites is free, but in most cases it's general. If you're willing to spend money on research that some sites offer, you should get more precise results. For example,'s Personal Salary Report lets you customize your search by taking into account your experience, location and credentials. The final cost for the more-detailed analysis depends on the complexity of the search.

Many salary sites also include job listings. Check them out, as well as jobs posted on employment sites, but keep in mind that they sometimes omit salary information.

And don't totally abandon old-fashioned methods.

Check the classifieds in your local newspaper. Association publications and trade journals also are valuable resources and often publish annual salary surveys. The major problem with these figures is that they may be too general.

"Advertising Age's salary survey may list a range for advertising manager which could be from $30,000 to $150,000 a year, depending on who responded to the survey and how," Coleman says.

Face-to-face facts
While online and traditional search methods are a start, you're eventually going to need some personal input to get an accurate salary assessment.

Paul Silitsky, a managing partner for the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based recruitment firm of AnswerQuest/MRI, says recruiters are a great source of salary information. Look for professionals who place your type of job in your geographical area and ask them what compensation levels they are seeing.

"You need to find recruiters that work in your space because they'll have the best information," Silitsky says.

Then there are your colleagues. Ask them for salary advice.

"People find it awkward to ask friends, co-workers or former co-workers, but it's often an effective way to find out what going salaries are," Coleman says.

"To set them at ease, just ask them what they think a person should expect as an average salary for someone with your level of experience. You're not asking them what they make, but just asking for a range. It's a little sleight of hand, but it makes people more comfortable."

More than money
There's one final thing to consider when evaluating whether you're being paid a competitive wage: your overall compensation package.

Examine health care benefits, the size of the employer's 401(k) contributions and vacation and sick leave. A high salary may be offset by a crummy benefits package.

"I have a neighbor who took a job with the same pay as his old one but his family's benefit costs doubled," says Arlene Vernon, president of HRxcellence, an Eden Prairie, Minn., HR consulting firm. "He's got little kids so he probably won't come out ahead on his new job."

So factor everything into the equation, and run the numbers regularly.

"You should always know what you're worth," says's Coleman. "Don't just look it up for a job or when you're looking for a raise. Keep your fingers on the pulse."

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

-- Updated: May 6, 2004


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