Wage negotiation can make or break your career

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Ready to Launch logoGraphic by Holly Nall

I’m sure you and I have both wondered, “Am I getting paid enough for this job?” We work at coffee shops and chain stores and earn minimum wage to pay the bills, but as we grow into degree-level professionals, the question is, how much should you be paid?

There’s a lot of appeal to negotiation for a higher wage; Ramit Sethi, New York Times bestselling author of “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” told Forbes that “…a single $5,000 raise in your 20s, if you properly invest it, can be worth over a million in the course of your career. And that’s just one raise.”

Hello, sign me up. But negotiation isn’t so simple as waltzing into work and saying, “Can I get $5,000 with today’s barista shift?”

After reading mountains of tips about how to negotiate your salary, especially after looking into the gender wage gap last week, I kept coming to the same question: is it a good idea for college students to negotiate? Or will I look like a prize idiot for trying?

“The short answer is ‘it depends,’” said Mitchell Marks, an SF State management professor in the College of Business. “It depends on whether the job is your ‘dream job’ which contributes to the career you desire of ‘just any old job’ which pays the bills.”

Marks’ example was if you wanted a career in broadcasting and found a job in the field as a student, then he would suggest to be less demanding about negotiating wages since that job will contribute to your resumé and overall career. However, if the job is just to pay the bills, especially when living in an expensive city like San Francisco, a student should negotiate more for a better wage to pay those bills.

That aligns with the unpaid internships and stipend jobs we often get offered: it’s a foot in the door. And once you get started with that foot in the door, it can lead to the next one. Then suddenly you’ve had internships and stipend jobs that you can use as experience and leverage for a better pay than if you didn’t have either of those.

William Sokol, a lecturer for labor and employment studies and a practicing labor lawyer, said that an important part of negotiating your wage is the demand for your services, and understanding what he calls the “labor marketplace.”

“(Students) need to understand as much as they can,” said Sokol, “whether they have negotiating power or anything unique.”

Sokol explained that whether you should be negotiating isn’t determined by age, but whether you have sufficient skills that give you leverage. The way to know if you have sufficient skills and what you should be asking for is to research your labor marketplace. If you’re applying to Wal-Mart and there’s a thousand other applicants that would happily take the job as is, you probably shouldn’t attempt to negotiate.

This also applies after you get the job, and negotiating raises. Sokol said you need to figure out at what point and time do you have sufficient leverage to approach an employer and say you’ve done good work, what you’ve brought to the company, and why you deserve the raise.

“It is always important to listen to the other party and understand their point of view when negotiating,” Marks said. “Never move on your position until the other party responds.”

In the end, it’s up to you to determine if the job you’re after is worth putting on the line for the paycheck, and whether it’ll take you to the next milestone of money or get you booted. It’s a risky task, but at the same time, an important life skill to understand. Learn tact in negotiation, because you’ll be using it for that next salary sooner or later.