We’ve all had the advice that we should be okay with the salary of our first job. After all, we’re simply trying to gain experience and get onto the career ladder. And whilst this may still be true for individuals who lack specialist skills or qualifications and where getting any job is the primary goal, this is no longer the case for more skilled individuals, even those at the beginning of their careers.

Setting the tone

For someone starting in a junior generalist admin role, there is something to be said about accepting a salary that might be on the low side, especially if it means that you gain access to the workplace and the opportunities to grow your skills and experience, including being available to take up new job opportunities within (and outside) the organisation. However, there is no cap on salary growth for an individual like this because their chance to increase future earnings will be directly linked to their career progress and the type of work they take on.

However, this is different for someone entering a profession, for example, an accountant, engineer or developer. Their qualification and the skill set they possess mean that they will usually enter into an organisation midway up the organogram. So their ability to skyrocket in salary is curtailed.

In skilled specialist roles, your first salary does matter. It sets the tone from which all your future job offers, and the salaries attached, will be benchmarked. Experienced candidates often comment that they feel as if they’re playing ‘catch up with their salaries, usually because they needed to start higher at the outset.

Know your worth

Market values differ from profession to profession and even between skill sets within the same job families. The age-old equation of supply vs demand equation will also impact a particular individual’s value to organisations. In South Africa, where transformation is still a significant focus area for business, the demographics of the individual will also likely impact their market value.

Before entering the job market, it would be wise for individuals to do some research to understand better the type of role they would most likely be employed in, taking into account their experience level (or lack thereof). In addition, assessing the current salaries in these roles will give a good indication of the starting point for your salary demand.

Looking at remuneration surveys can be useful, but it is often more helpful to work with a specialist recruiter, one who works in your area of expertise, because they will be able to judge your market value with their client’s needs fairly, the availability of skill currently, and the trends of job offers made in the past while.

Impact of Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value

The recently amended Employment Equity Act, in section 6, introduces legislation that seeks to eliminate discriminatory pay practices. The concept of equal pay for work of equal value does not mean that every individual doing the same job earns precisely the same. Still, it does entrench the rationale for differentiation that would be permissible and acceptable in terms of fair discrimination. Experience and qualification are two such factors. Companies will inevitably offer a newly qualified, less experienced individual, even one with highly specialist skills, less than a counterpart who has worked for some time. Of course, output and quality of work are also factors for consideration, and individuals, therefore, have the ability, once employed, to prove that their value is the same (or more significant) by comparison of the work outputs between newly qualified and more experienced employees.

Top Tips

As you enter the job market fresh from University, remember to balance your need for employment and experience with your expectations. Follow these top tips to boost your chances of securing an excellent first job at a fair salary:

  1. Do your homework and know what is reasonable for newly qualified professionals like yourself.
  2. Analyse what you need to survive. Factor in costs associated with travel to/from work, especially if the job you’re considering is not close to home. If you can, don’t forget to factor in saving at least 10% of your nett earnings per month!
  3. Ensure that your CV indicates your knowledge and skills and the value you can bring to an organisation.
  4. Consider doing volunteer work in the interim, any other experience you can include in your CV will improve your employment prospects.
  5. Grow your skills. Learn what skills are seen as valuable or essential, advanced MS Excel, for example, and boost your abilities here. In addition, there are many online courses, often for free, that you can tap into.
  6. Brush up on your interviewing skills – a great first impression can boost your chances of securing more money.
  7. Consider taking a lower offer if you can get the employer to include a salary review (within six months), and it’s written into your employment contract.
  8. Don’t be arrogant. No matter how in-demand your skills are, approach your interviews and especially salary discussions with humility. Overconfidence can be a deal breaker!
  9. Never pay anyone to find you a job – it’s against the law.
  10. Save! Spending all your hard-earned cash may be tempting, but start a good habit from your first pay cheque and put something away every month.