2014 Salary and Job Satisfaction Survey: So Happy Together

Job satisfaction is high and the 'average' salary of $97,303 is a 3.16 percent increase for this group.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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If the food industry was Sally Field, feedback from Food Processing’s 8th annual Salary & Job Satisfaction Survey would make it blush and say, “You like me, you really like me.”

Many and varied factors contribute to the good vibes: challenging work, compatible colleagues and managers, a stable and growing company and feeling appreciated, to name a few. Among the hundreds of survey participants who provided specific praises, one long-time (36-plus years with the same firm) executive summarized his satisfaction by writing, “Job security, pay and benefits, outstanding work environment, strong corporate financials and management.”

Some rank-and-file workers were among the 750 food industry professionals who participated in this year’s online survey, but for the most part they were drawn from skilled positions such as corporate management, engineering, R&D and quality assurance. These professionals reported an average salary increase of 3.16 percent over the prior year, up from last year’s 2.65 percent gain and the biggest boost since the Great Recession. They also averaged 3.62 on the 5-point job satisfaction index, up from 3.57. A sour note was the increase in the proportion of people who are more concerned about job security.

We made some key changes this year in the way salaries are reported, so we don't want to call this year's $97,303 "average" salary a decline from last year's $103,988. That 3.16 percent increase in the previous paragraph was the aggregate this year's respondents reported for themselves.

Year-to-year comparisons of average compensation packages can be a bit tricky, inasmuch as the respondent pool shifts. Plus, this year we changed the survey to allow people to write in their exact salary, which should increase precision. As a result, this year’s average salary and bonus package of $97,303 is probably more reflective of actual industry pay for these jobs than last year’s $103,988 because half of this year’s pool provided an actual dollar amount instead of indicating a salary range. If people at the income extremes are excluded, the average salary was $96,678. Median compensation was $85,000.

“Challenging work” was the most frequently used phrase of respondents who took the time to comment on their job satisfaction, with “good/great company” close behind. Most comments were specific to the individual’s situation. “Part of my satisfaction results from the fact that I will be retiring in nine months,” one industry veteran wrote. “I should add, however, that most of my 32 years with this company have been satisfying.”

Long, satisfying careers in the food industry are not unusual: One-third of survey participants has logged 26 years or more in the industry. Overall, 11 percent has 26-plus years tenure at their current company, a testimony to stability. “I work for a great company that has treated me and my family very well,” one professional unabashedly wrote. The sentiment is echoed by another, who commented, “The company really makes me feel wanted. I will retire here.” That product development specialist spent more than 30 years in the wilderness before finding his nirvana.

Not everybody is in love with their job, and although half as many voiced gripes compared to praise, they have a litany of complaints. “Lack of” prefaces beefs that include appreciation, respect, opportunity and challenge. Stress, over-work, lack of acknowledgement and poor management compete with inadequate pay among disaffected professionals. “Management refuses to communicate with workers in a timely manner,” a maintenance professional critiqued. “Large amount of employee turnover because of increased workloads without any support from management.”

Erosion of both pay and benefits is a sore spot for some. “No raise in six years,” one wrote, and another chimed in, “Pay rate is low, medical and dental are expensive and don’t offer the best coverage with high co-pays and deductibles, only 10 days PTO.”

The general pay raises in recent years have yet to make up the difference from pay cuts many experienced in 2009-2010. “The cost of most things has risen to the point where I seriously need to make more money just to make ends meet,” a sales and marketing staffer wrote. “I really love my job, but it may be time to move on.”

Showdown at Gender Gap

A disproportionate number of negative comments came from female staffers, a troubling sign for an industry that is skewing to the distaff side. Men dominate the older demographics, but the ratio of women increases in each age group as they grow younger. Among respondents 29 and younger, there’s an even split between the genders. Women are taking hard-to-fill slots in engineering, plant operations and other areas, and retaining their services will be critical in the years ahead.

Two of five people expressing dissatisfaction were women, and salary issues were far and away the most common complaint. Not only does the gender pay gap identified in every previous Salary and Job Satisfaction survey persist, it appears to be widening: While female respondents last year earned 75.4 cents for every dollar that male respondents earned, this year they slipped to 64.9 cents.

Youth and work experience contribute to the disparity, though other factors also are at play. Women are represented in almost all job categories, but almost half are concentrated in R&D and QA positions. In those jobs, the gap persists but narrows: Female QA professionals earned 82 cents to the dollar of male counterparts. Women in R&D received 73 cents on the dollar.

When respondents under the age of 30 are compared, the salary figures are a little more equitable. Women in that age group reported average compensation of $55,266, compared to $63,865 for their male peer group. New blood comes in a wider age range. An analysis of people with five years or less industry experience shows men brought home $82,897 on average, compared to $56,927. Those callow fellows had a higher-than-average satisfaction score (3.67), while the women scored a below-average 3.45.

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