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STC Salary Survey

By Joe Welinske

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The Society for Technical Communication recently published the 2009-2010 Salary Database. The data in the report is information from 2008 and 2009. I received a free copy of the report with my Gold membership package. The regular price for the report is $10 to members and $49 to non-members. The report is 142 pages in length of which there are seven pages of analysis and fourteen pages of graphs. The balance consists of the raw data tables related to the technical writer profession. The data in the report comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. I picked through it to see what I could find that might be of interest to user assistance professionals.

First of all, here are some tidbits that I found interesting.

  • There are just over 46,000 technical writers in the U.S. averaging $65,610 per year.
  • Employment fell by 2.5 % in 2009 from 2008, but that was less than the overall U.S. workforce loss of 3.4%.
  • Tech writers make 10-20% more money per year than those in the categories of Writers and Authors, Reporters and Correspondents, PR Specialists, Graphic Designers, and Editors. However, the PR jobs have almost doubled over the past ten years while the other professions, including tech writing, have been flat.
  • The highest average wages were in Massachusetts, California, and Washington, averaging between $70-80 thousand per year.
  • The report classified certain cities as "second tier" based on size. Of those cities, Raleigh-Durham, NC had the largest number of tech writers and it increased from 410 to 530.
  • The top states for overall employment were California, Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts.
  • Michigan lost the most jobs (340) while Virginia gained the most (150).
  • The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA area had a 17% percent reduction in jobs. Ouch.
  • Half of the jobs lost from '08 to '09 were in just five of the states: Michigan, New Jersey, Arizona, Illinois, and New York.
  • There was no data for Wyoming. There must be someone doing tech writing there. We need to find that person. Even Puerto Rico had data.
  • If you want to get taken advantage of, move to Greenville, SC where the average salary for the 100 tech writers is just $39,000 per year.
  • The 30 tech writers working in the Natural Gas Distribution area are kicking salary ass with an average of $89,000 per year. Of course, there might be a couple people making $150,000 and skewing the average.

Regional Breakdowns

Here are average annual salaries for the top ten states in order of overall employment.

State# of writersAverage wage
Table 1

The results in Table 1 are somewhat different for user assistance based on WritersUA surveys. Several of the states are areas that tend to feature a lot more documentation that is not software-related: Michigan for automotive, New York financial, DC government. I'm not sure what the Texas jobs consist of. A lot of UA jobs in Texas had been in telecommunications prior to the meltdown in the early part of the decade.

The report had tables based on Combined Statistical Areas (CSAs.) These are large metropolitan areas that cross state boundaries.

CSA# of writersAverage wage
New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island2,370$70,850
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana2,100$77,330
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont1,120$74,980
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington1,100$65,890
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach400$55,800
Table 2

Table 2 also reflects a different ranking of areas than what we find in user assistance. The top metro UA areas are Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco Bay. The Chicago and Dallas areas also feature a lot of corporate IT jobs.

Additional tables in the report break down the CSAs into sub-sections of the greater metropolitan areas. These MSAs are interesting, but I think they may also cut the data too thin to be useful. For example, the MSA of San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara had 1,500 employees earning an average of $95,000 per year. The San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood area had 700 people averaging 74,000. However, to my knowledge there is no markedly different cost of living in those adjacent geographic areas. The two areas have a very similar profile for job types.

There are also areas where the MSAs may be hiding differences based on geography. For example, Seattle-Bellevue-Everett had 1,360 workers averaging $80,000 per year. You would probably find a significant difference in salaries if those three areas were separated.

Of the seventeen smallest MSAs, the most jobs were in St. Mary's County, Maryland. That area had a job increase from 100 to 120 jobs but it dropped $8,000 per year in average salary from 2008. I had to Google "St. Mary's" to find it. It is located in the very southeastern tip of the state. There must be some kind of military/industrial complex there.

Industry Sectors

The report has about sixty pages of tables that slice and dice based on multi-digit NAICS industry codes. These are categories like Utilities, Manufacturing, and Construction of Buildings. I found it hard to make good use of this information. It would be helpful to have some definitions or examples.

For example, 18,000 tech writers are in the Professional Scientific and Professional Services category. But I have no idea what types of jobs that would cover.

I take issue with the following piece of analysis in the report:

The drivers of the recovery are so very different from the industries that led the economy prior to the recession. The former core drivers included construction, retail, hospitality services, and financial services. Few skills from those industries transfer to the industries driving the recovery: healthcare, government, exporting, energy conservation, and infrastructure investment.

The skills of technical writers tend to transfer well between industries. While operating a bulldozer may only fit in the construction industry, having experience writing safety manuals for machinery could be of use in many types of industries. In terms of finding a UA job, I think that experience in a particular sector is of less importance than experience with software development.

Also, salaries may be markedly different within industries and organizations depending on the nature of the technical writing work. Being part of the IT department in an organization will often result in a higher average salary than in some other departments in the same organization. If you looked at a company in the Mining sector you would probably find that a tech writer doing policies and procedures would be making less than a tech writer with similar qualifications in the IT department.

Of the ninety 4-digit classifications (the most granular level), there are probably software UA jobs salted through all of them. But it is impossible to break it out based on most of the descriptions.

There are only two areas that would likely be predominantly user assistance:

8,860 people: Computer Systems Design and Related Services
2,870 people: Software Publishers

And two areas that might have a significant representation of UA folks:

3,460 people: Architectural, Engineering, and Related Services
3,010 people: Management, Scientific, and Technical Consulting Services

Salary versus Hourly

The various tables in the report have data labeled Salary and Hourly. However, it appears that the hourly tables were just generated by dividing the salaries by 2,080 (52 weeks per year, 40 hours per week.) This doesn't seem very useful unless you are working for an employment agency. It doesn't address the differences in pay for salaried employees versus hourly contractors/temps. I also couldn't find any footnotes as to how independent contractors are handled. Contractors may receive higher wages on average. However, that has to account for self-employment taxes and business expenses.

Joe Welinske Joe Welinske is the president of WritersUA - a company devoted to providing training and information for user assistance professionals. Joe has been involved with software documentation development since 1984. Together with Scott Boggan and David Farkas, Joe authored two editions of the popular and pioneering book Developing Online Help for Windows. He has also taught online Help courses at the University of Washington, UC Santa Cruz, and Bellevue Community College. Joe was the President of STC Puget Sound Chapter from 2006-2008 and remains on the board in charge of gathering chapter sponsorships. Joe is currently Membership Director for the Puget Sound Chapter of the Usability Professionals Association.


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Published on December 13, 2010


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