How to Negotiate Salary in Your First Job

January 5, 2015

Featured in 2015 Guide to Getting an Engineering JobYou’ve aced the interview, and they want you! Now it’s time to hammer out the details. Engineers and managers weigh in on when and how to negotiate salary.

Can You Negotiate Salary?

This is probably the toughest part of the process: knowing when to negotiate and when to shut up and take the offer. Before you start, you need to know what constitutes a fair deal.

“Young engineers have influence over their pay simply because engineers are currently high in demand,” warns Samantha Lambert, Director of HR at Blue Fountain Media. “Employers will try to take advantage of an entry level hire by offering them a low-ball salary if they are not educated as to what they should be earning.”

Find out what’s normal for your industry and location. ““New engineers should do some research before going into an interview and salary negotiation,” advises Lisa Mullen, Manager of Corporate Human Resources at Halogen Software. “Consult with peers in similar roles, search salary bands online, and check with professional associations that track salary info. This way you can go into the negotiation with realistic expectations to ensure you come out with a fair deal.”

Next, assess whether it’s worth even attempting to negotiate. Stacy Hawley from career consultants Credo, and author of Rise To The Top: How Women Leverage Their Professional Persona to Earn More, notes that it depends a lot on the type of company you’re applying to. Big companies often have standard procedures and won’t negotiate. Startups and small companies may be more flexible, but they don’t always have much budget for negotiation.

“Starting salaries for many engineering graduates are pretty good,” Hawley says. “A mining engineer from a good school can make $80k right out of college. If you’re asking for more, be careful not to come across as greedy.”

On the other hand, salary and career negotiation consultant Katie Donovan points out that “84% of hiring managers expect negotiation, so they need to keep some money available for the negotiation. It’s estimated that people who negotiate add $1 million to their career earnings.” If the offer seems low, that could be an indicator they’re expecting you to negotiate salary.

Finally, be honest about what you’re really worth. Randy Iliff of bb7 stresses the need to take a realistic view of your own value to an employer. Do you really stand out? Are you really worth more than the average applicant?  “In a corporate environment, salary is benchmarked against industry norms, fresh college grads are generally considered interchangeable commodities purchased at the going rate.  The key is to be something other than the norm – that enables the allowable deviations from base salary a hiring manager can lobby for.  A standard graduate will get a standard offer, but a graduate who started and sold her own company prior to graduation gets completely different treatment.”

Consultant Barry Maher recommends this simple test. “Ask yourself the following question: ‘Do I believe I deserve this money strongly enough that I can create a case that should convince my potential boss?’ If you can’t convince yourself, you’ll never convince anyone else.”

If you really do have something special, then by all means, try to parlay that into an above average salary.

How to Negotiate Salary in Your First Job negotiation table Tax Preparation Las Vegas

Credit: Tax Preparation Las Vegas

Negotiate from a Winning Position

“There’s no substitute for a great resume,” says Hawley. “The better the school, the better the pay. That’s a simple fact. Have a superb GPA, some first-class project work, and details about the courses you took. And most importantly, work experience and internships. Show that you’re worth more than a typical graduate.”

Tom Goettl, Vice President of recruitment firm George Konik Associates, has worked exclusively within the engineering field for 40 years. “Candidates with a 3.5 GPA or higher should list this on their resume and mention it during the interview process. This represents the ability to quickly learn new tasks and minimize training time which is a great value to employers.”

Maher stresses the importance of preparation. “Be ready with a list of your accomplishments, academic or otherwise, all the reasons why you’re worth the figure you want,” Maher advises. “Don’t just tell me about your amazing potential. Give me the reasons why that potential should be obvious.”

Negotiate to Win

How to Negotiate Salary in Your First Job negotiation handshake Finance Blue

Credit: Finance Blue

When your new employer makes an offer, be ready to have an open discussion about salary. “The first offer is just that: a first offer,” says Maher. “Come back with a polite counter offer: ‘I was really thinking in terms of X dollars, boss.’ Then you can settle on something between the two.”

Hawley concurs. “Don’t undervalue yourself. You’ve worked hard for that degree. It’s always worth asking if they can do better. It doesn’t always work out, but if you’ve done your homework, you should know what you’re worth and what the company can afford.”

Make sure you’re selling yourself effectively, and show them why you’re worth it. “It never is about what you want and always about what they can get.” says interviewing consultant Ramon Santillan Jr. “I want $5k more because you are getting an engineer with (what is unique about you) and (something else you are the best at).”

It can be a risky strategy, but sometimes brinkmanship can pay off. If you’re confident that they really want you, you can try turning the job down and see if they come back to you. Electrical engineer Sarah Weinberger used this technique successfully and it paid off.

“Back at the end of 2005, I had spent over a year looking for work. I got myself a career coach. Within a few weeks, I got a job offer from a company located in Anaheim. I live in the Westside, so it would have been one heck of a commute. The salary was pathetic and half of what I previously earned. I asked for an increase. They told me that the salary was set and there is no flexibility. My coach ordered me to turn the offer down. I was out of work and needed the money, but he was adamant, so I complied. A long story short, the company followed up with two other offers upping their offer by something like $7000. I was instructed: “Turn it down.” I did. We proceeded.

Within a week, I almost landed another job offer. Another week later, a well known company offered me a salary about four times the offer made by the first company, and I accepted.

I am still awed by that first company that said that the compensation for the position was set in stone with absolutely no wiggle room. They came back to me twice saying that the CEO found some extra money and really wants me.”

Hawley recommends being very careful with this strategy. “Don’t try to play one company off against another,” she says. “It’s okay to say that their offer won’t work for you, but be prepared for them to hire someone else instead unless they really need you.”

Explore All Your Options

Base salary sometimes isn’t negotiable, particularly in established companies with fixed pay scales, or in a small company with a defined budget. Instead, see if there are other forms of compensation you can discuss.

“Ask about relocation allowances or a sign-on bonus,” suggests Hawley. “Many companies are more flexible about those than they are about salaries. Or if you’re looking at a startup, talk about stock options. They don’t always have cash, but those stock options could be valuable one day and it shows you’re thinking long-term.”

Executive career coach Tim Toterhi of Plotline Leadership recommends always asking for an extra concession. “This could come in the form of extra vacation, tuition reimbursements, or other perks.”

Position Yourself for Growth

Your starting salary is just that: a starting point. Even if you don’t get what you want immediately, ask whether there are opportunities for a raise. Maher recommends being up front about this. “Politely and respectfully ask your potential new boss (rather than the HR person) if you can sit down together and determine what specifically you need to do in order to earn a raise in the future. Try to work out deliverables that are as specific as possible and try to pin down a time frame. Take notes, let your new boss see that you’re taking notes, and if possible work up something in writing you can both agree to. Ask for his or her help in achieving those deliverables. Then report your progress regularly. Once you’ve met those specific goals, it will be very difficult for your boss not to grant your raise or at the very least fight for it.”

Career coach CaMesha Reece suggests asking for incentives if you prove yourself. “Accept a market range salary and negotiate a great bonus structure. If you are as good as you say you are, you should have no problems meeting deadlines under budget and delivering project results.”

Hawley’s approach is to treat it like a game. “Don’t stop pushing once you’ve got the job. See how the game works, and what the rules are. Become an active player, and do what you need to do to get noticed and rewarded.” This, she suggests, may be one reason why female engineers usually start off getting equal pay, but after two years, their salary is typically lower than their male counterparts. “Women tend to be more passive. They work just as hard, but they don’t push, and they get overlooked.”


Featured Image Credit: Susanne