Added to Medium, March 1, 2018
This past week was Museum Advocacy Day 2018 hosted by the American Alliance of Museums where museum professionals went down to Washington D.C. and/or used social media to bring awareness of museums impact on the country to their state representatives, the House of Representatives, and the Senate. I came across this article from Alliance Labs posted last week, and I thought about these factors as examples of why we need more support from our government representatives to increase our funding to help museums function.
I also thought this article is a good edition to the leaving the museum field discussion. One of the top reasons museum professionals decided to leave the field because of the low wages museums offer. When we take a closer look at museum wages, and how they are influenced to be the way they are in recent years, we are able to find out how we can make a better case for increasing funding in our museums to better support our institutions and our professionals to our government officials.
Written by Michael Holland, “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down” discusses how our museum wages are influenced to the state they are currently in nowadays. According to Holland, the factors that drove museum wages down are the way laws and policies are written; people on top making decisions that have museum professionals wear many hats or have a job that is multiple jobs in one; figuring out how to monetize museum professionals’ work; limited advancement opportunity; internal equity in the museum; spouses of museum professionals earning higher income helps supplement expenses; and there are many applicants applying for the few jobs that are available in the field.
After reading this article, I felt that based on my experience as a museum professional these factors make sense and that we should be better at having museum professionals earn reasonable wages. To start having museum professionals earn living wages, we should take a look at the factors that influence the wages. Holland discussed about government structure, law, and policy and how this is part of how museum wages are down. He revealed that,
Many museums are affiliated with governmental entities. Museums at state universities are staffed by people who are actually public employees (just like the football coaches, but without the exorbitant salaries). Sometimes this is helps employees (legislatively mandated cost-of-living pay increases), but the structural framework of employee classification can put some hard limits on salaries, making it difficult to change compensation significantly without also changing your title and job description. This means that even if the museum has success raising substantial funding from the private sector, they may not be allowed to spend it on their staff in the same ways that a private business can.
Contractor pay is not limited by job titles or classifications, and is instead a reflection of what the market will bear, and they charge what it takes to stay in business. Museums are paying what the work is actually worth, but they pay someone other than their own staff to do it. This allows administrators to follow the rules and stay within the compensation ranges dictated by governmental job classifications, since they’re technically spending the money on stuff (goods and services) instead of staff (their own personnel).
What stood out to me was when he stated “even if the museum has success raising substantial funding from the private sector, they may not be allowed to spend it on their staff in the same ways that a private business can.” To me, it means that museum professionals do not have the control they have to improve funding that supports wages if relying on one form of financial support. Museums do not rely on one source for financial support since there are a lot of resources needed to keep a museum running.
Another statement that stood out to me was museums paying what the work is worth to someone other than their own staff so administrators can follow rules and stay within compensation ranges dictated by governmental job classifications. A lot of times we do need to bring in outside help to keep the museum running, however it should depend on what we need and if any of the staff can do it before bringing in someone else on a project. The main point of this factor I believe is that we need to have this wages discussion with our government, and Museum Advocacy Day is a great example of how we can talk with our representatives about the importance of museums as well as the museum professionals who dedicate so much time to their museums.
Holland also discussed about corporate culture being absorbed in the museum culture. He stated in the post that,
Like many companies, museums these days are doing more with fewer people, and have surprisingly small staffs who wear a lot of hats. With fewer people on staff, anything beyond daily operations can exceed in-house capacity, and when it does, work gets contracted out. This arrangement allows the company—sorry, the museum—to trim operating expenses and then spend on specific projects only as needed, rather than carry the ongoing expense of a larger staff. I haven’t seen the math to allow me to say for certain whether or not this ultimately saves the museum money in the long run, but it might look favorable on paper during the tenure of any given administration.
Wearing many hats is a very familiar concept for museum professionals, especially myself. I have not also seen the math on whether the way museum staff run the museum saves the museum money in the long run, and while it might look favorable on paper those who suffer from how museums are run these days the most are the staff.
In our field, there is so much discussion about how we need to make sure we take care of ourselves. For instance, Seema Rao wrote a blog post called “Productivity: In Defense of Breaks” which is all about the importance of taking breaks to be productive. However, it is a challenge to do so when there is so much to do and not much time to get the self-care time we need to prevent ourselves from burning out too quickly. Many museum professionals end up working on multiple projects simultaneously to the point that they are too tired to be productive, and they work longer hours to attempt to complete projects. Since the wages are low, museum professionals are more likely to work longer hours to attempt to pay for expenses. We need to incorporate self-care into how we run our museums by finding a way to increase wages and bring in more staff assistance while we keep our museums running.
Measuring employee value is a challenging situation to discuss and figure out because it can easily be undervalued when finding ways to save museum expenses to keep a museum running. Holland discusses measuring employee value as a factor that drove museum wages down by pointing out how the corporate world measures employee value:
One area where the museum sector appears to differ from the corporate world is the difficulty of measuring the value of any given employee to the organization. In business, a company can estimate with sometimes remarkable accuracy the return on investment (ROI) of hiring an employee, and quarterly earnings reports can validate those estimates. But most museums are not for-profit entities. They don’t have shareholders to please, or CEOs with their pay directly linked to the performance of the company by stock options.
If our museums insist on measuring our staff’s value, there has to be different standards and/or a different system that reflects our impact on the museum. While thinking corporately will to an extent help bring in money for museums, we also need to think like museums and give museum staff the value that they have earned and deserved.
Another set of situations that Holland has also listed as factors are limited advancement opportunity and understanding internal equity. There are not many opportunities for museum professionals to climb the ladder in their careers despite the fact that their positions in the field are essential for running the museum. Museum professionals, according to Holland, who manage to stick around long enough are likely to advance somewhat by becoming designated managers of other co-workers. There are museum professionals that have some advancement not clearly defined since there may be a title change and/or additional responsibilities added to the responsibilities they were originally hired for, and therefore priorities are mixed.
The fifth factor Holland mentioned, understanding internal equity, detailed that trying to fairly pay staff equal wages could also be driving museum wages down. Museums attempt to avoid conflict between staff members by giving all staff members equal wages. However, as Holland has stated:
Internal equity is a valid concern, but our understanding of equity might be incomplete if we’re basing it solely on salary. Broader economic trajectories over time can have enormous impact on whether or not a salary is truly sufficient. Nowhere has this impact been stronger than in housing costs. A staff member who bought their house for $40,000 in 1988 might be able to get by today on $34,000/year. But someone hired today in the same city where a house now costs $500,000 and a one-bedroom apartment goes for $1,600/month will not, unless they bring a pile of home equity with them (hint- this isn’t a thing for pretty much anyone under 30, and many well beyond that age). If the new hire is younger and has typical student loan debt, they’ll be even worse off. These two employees may have the same salary, but their economic realities are not even close to comparable. Perhaps a better definition of internal equity would be based on “effective income”, defined as how much money each of our two comparable staff members has remaining each month after their housing costs are paid.
This is a common concern within our museum community. I myself have worked with co-workers that are all different in age and circumstances. They all stress the situations they are in, and when we think about fairness as giving equal wages then we are not really being fair to all circumstances in which we are in to help support ourselves and our financial responsibilities. We need to figure out how to make wages more effective for all of our staff.
Other factors Holland discussed are spousal income subsidy and many applicants for few jobs. Both of these factors, as well as the previous factors, are familiar to me and I always have to keep this in mind when I think about my future. In a previous blog post on how to balance work and family, I mentioned that I am getting married and maintaining the balance is essential especially for me and other museum professionals. When I read the statement “With a steady supply of people who would love to work in a museum don’t have to worry so much about their earnings, museums may not have much incentive to raise salaries”, both Holland and myself have thought about the extent museums depend on hiring individuals with spouses and supplemental income. Like every individual museum professional has varying financial circumstances, married couples have varying financial circumstances that may very well need to depend on both salaries to fulfill their responsibilities.
I have also seen too often is having so many applicants apply for few jobs. As a museum professional who has applied to many times in the field, it felt discouraging for me when there are few jobs available and yet I have gained so much knowledge of the field that would be helpful for museums. While I have figured out a way or two to help me stay in the field I am passionate about, many museum professionals have to leave the field to figure out another way to fulfill financial obligations. Museums should acknowledge museum professionals who bring in the skills and knowledge they need to fulfill their organizations’ missions.
Many of these factors and ways we need to make the changes we should essentially do depend on the influences from the top. If we are able to talk with our government representatives to make changes and support our museums, we should do so and these changes will lead to museum professionals having equitable wages going forward in the museum field.
Have you read Holland’s post on Alliance Labs? What did you think of Holland’s “7 Factors That Drive Museum Wages Down”? Are there other factors we need to acknowledge and discuss?