Moving From Public to Private Sector and Getting Paid
September 23, 2009 6:33 PM   Subscribe

How can I transition from a public-sector web job to a private-sector job and get a good private-sector salary?

I'm a web developer with over 10 years experience in the industry, and I've been working as a web application developer in a Bay Area university for the last seven years. I develop web applications and content management systems, and I have experience in information architecture, graphic design, and copy editing.

I'm looking for a private-sector job due to budget cuts making the university position untenable. I see a lot of web developer positions in my area and the salaries range from the mid-80s to mid-90s and up depending on the position.

I had an interview recently for a web manager position that required a considerably broader range of responsibilities, and they tried to lowball me by offering low 90s when I knew the position had been listed online starting at 100K. They asked how much I currently make; I eventually told them (77K) even though I don't feel it's relevant because:

* Private-sector jobs pay more than public-sector jobs so they aren't directly comparable.

* This job has more responsibilities than web developer jobs that pay in the range they mentioned.

* I don't make what the university's salary guidelines say I should be making for someone with my experience. I initially started as a temporary employee and my initial salary and two increases (over seven years) were based on a low starting salary.

What other arguments can I use? I know switching jobs is the best time to get a substantial salary increase, and I don't want to start a new job feeling like I'm not being paid what I'm worth.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You don't need to use other arguments. Make sure you have a realistic idea of the industry wage, and then lie about your salary in the job interview so that it's matching. So next time they ask you what you make, say 97k, not 77.

Believe me, even if your current 'salary' (the fake one) is higher than what they want to pay, if they want you they'll make a lower offer and ask you to join, they have nothing to lose.
posted by smoke at 6:39 PM on September 23, 2009

Hiring guy here again.

You can't argue your way to a higher salary with a new employer at hiring and come out looking good. There's too much downside to how you present yourself, and since you have no experience with them yet, that's how they'll form their entire impression of you.

You can turn down the offer very politely and explain that the salary is too low for you, and you can do that once. You do NOT need to justify or give reasons for this. It's a perfectly fine reason to turn down an offer, and you don't owe an explanation for it, which can sound more like griping than anything constructive, which will further erode their interest in you.

So just turn it down with no explanation other than "pay is too low, sorry."

The hiring firm will then (a) make a higher offer, (b) ask you what you would accept, or (c) say "sorry" and hire someone else. And that's when you're done, and you walk away.

But you can't draw it out into long negotiations. You're not an asset to them yet, they have no time/money invested in you yet, and you have no leverage. If this were an internal application where you already had a history with the firm, or a promotion or whatnot, you could "argue" and be on firmer ground.
posted by rokusan at 6:42 PM on September 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

No offense, but are you sure they didn't "lowball" because you don't have any management experience, and not because they are unaware that public sector jobs are lower paying?

Still, feel free to lie, skirt the issue, or etc.
posted by shownomercy at 6:44 PM on September 23, 2009

Some firms also dislike or discount university hires because their experience and background is quite different from jobs in the "real world".

They tend to be a bit "spoiled" by the large support infrastructure and crazy-high level of security of college employment. They also (really broad brush here, sorry) tend to take long and safe views on most decisions, rather than adjust to high pressure and deadlines and aren't always so good at improvisation. Overall, I've see many people with long college-working experience be poor fits at smaller firms that lack the HR departments and rigid guidelines and appeals boards and work-to-rule cultures.

They do, however, work well at very large corporations, and they're also better valued there, so I'd advice focusing on large firms, not small ones.

All on average, IME, YMMV and so on.
posted by rokusan at 6:54 PM on September 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

advise, obviously.
posted by rokusan at 7:46 PM on September 23, 2009

I strongly disagree about lying about your past salary. That would be grounds for dismissal or withdrawing an offer, if, for example, they asked for a recommendation from your current employer and salary was discussed.

Why have that hanging over your head? You are accepting a position with more responsibilities, so the salary should be higher.
posted by Spacelegoman at 8:13 PM on September 23, 2009

Avoid disclosing your current pay. If you find that you must, give them the amount including benefits. Say "My total package is worth $X". Add in all the benefits you receive. If they ask for your base salary, look at them a bit quizically and say that it would be completely out of context and that, if you're looking at the value you bring to any position, you have to look at the total value you're getting from the job. Or something along those lines.

If you get a pension, make sure you really understand how much it's worth.

That being said, draw the attention to the position you're applying for. You're not going to be doing your current job.
posted by acoutu at 10:35 PM on September 23, 2009

Salary is only one piece of the pie. Public sector benefit packages are something you most likely will not see in the private sector. Take this into account when negotiating. Try asking for more vacation at the new job, for example.
posted by JJ86 at 7:58 AM on September 24, 2009

follow-up from the OP
The position has "manager" in the title, but it doesn't involve managing anyone (and besides, I do have management experience). My university has a poor support infrastructure and not much security. We've had layoffs and I anticipate more because we're going to have more budget cuts.

Also, I shouldn't have said "offered," because I don't have an offer. I'm in the initial rounds with a recruiter and they mentioned a salary range that's lower than they posted online. I know it's better to wait as long as possible before talking salary but it was clear I had no chance unless I did. I don't think I'm getting this job but need advice for other possibilities. Thanks for all the advice!
posted by jessamyn at 12:21 PM on September 24, 2009

My university has a poor support infrastructure and not much security. We've had layoffs and I anticipate more because we're going to have more budget cuts.

That sucks, but doesn't change the problem, which is really about private sector peoples' perceptions about college-employed life. And you can't really fix those, so you have to work around the edges carefully, I think.

Fair or not, universities, like some F-500's, are "famous" for allowing maybe-apocryphal things like a person to collect a check for ten years without showing up, employees who work three weeks and then collect two years of faux-disability while they also attend classes, or an entire department working in a faraway corner that the rest of the place has forgotten about. On the good side, they do provide environments, whether on purpose or accidentally, that allow people to work for weeks and weeks on single problems free of interruption, and some great things can get done that way... but few profit-driven companies will hire a position designed to be that way. Again, I'm saying all this to catch you up on the preconceptions you're competing against as someone without private-sector experience. You should know.

You might be able to mitigate this a bit by describing it as "a small college where I did four different jobs at once" or something, but try not to complain.
posted by rokusan at 12:54 PM on September 24, 2009

"How can I transition from a public-sector web job to a private-sector job and get a good private-sector salary?"

You're going to be up against some bias that public sector employees generally don't work as hard as private sector employees. (Having experienced both work ethics from the inside now, I would have to agree that the stereotype is on average true.) Thus they might not see you as bringing as much value as someone coming from a private sector background.

So, emphasize that you worked long hours, if you did. If you didn't work long hours, emphasize any time you spent on outside professional development or personal web-development projects. Show them that you're not the stereotypical punch-in-for-40-hours-and-just-do-the-minimum state employee.

Meanwhile, read _Negotiating Your Salary: How to Make $1000 a Minute_ by Jack Chapman.

"I don't make what the university's salary guidelines say I should be making for someone with my experience."

Does your university's HR department have a salary equity review process? If you're paid by grade, and can show that you're performing a higher grade of work than your pay grade, you could petition for an equity review for a higher grade/pay. This might piss someone off, but you're planning on leaving anyway. Then when you apply to other jobs you can give your new higher salary amount if you feel "forced" to disclose your current salary.

Or, you could side-step the question about YOUR salary by answering with the university salary guidelines for your position and experience. "University of [BLAH] pays $X for this position..." (you're not claiming they pay YOU $X, just that they pay $X for that position, which you can back up if necessary with a copy of the university's salary guidelines) "...but since I'm moving into the private sector and this job would have more responsibility I'm looking for something more in the range of $Y to $Z."

However, keep in mind that as a public employee your salary is probably public information, available by a Freedom of Information Act request or possibly already published on the university's website somewhere. So be cautious about lying or otherwise deceiving.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:40 PM on September 25, 2009

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