Recently I received an email from someone on LinkedIn who was curious to know more about instructional design, and how to break into the industry. These questions are always hard to answer since getting into instructional design is dependent on many factors. Nonetheless, I did my best to provide practical advice given their background. Of the three to four questions I was asked by this individual, one question in particular really struck me: “How much can I expect to make as an Instructional Designer?”
Truth be told, this is a fair question to ask as anyone who is about to start a career would be smart to know the general salary expectations. Naturally, I didn’t know the answer to this off-hand, but a quick search on Salary.com led me to discover that an instructional designer can reasonably expect to earn somewhere between $33,000 to $102,000 per year, with an estimated average of $65,000. Now, I know this is only one source, but for all intents and purposes I think it provides an accurate window of expectations.
I sent this information to the person who contacted me, and the next day received one a follow-up question: “What factors determine where you fall within the salary range?”
Again, a fair question to ask, but a difficult one to answer specifically. The usual suspects apply though, such as education, employer, geographic location, experience, and position. Now, some of these factors may be out of your control as an ID, but there are certain things you can do to position yourself for higher pay.
1. Specialize: Let’s face it, every year there is added competition in every industry as recent graduates come along and enter the field. The way you can differentiate yourself is to pick a specialization and pursue work in that particular field. Specialization can be industry-specific, platform-specific, or both. For example, you could choose to specialize in Healthcare, or maybe SalesForce.com software. When it comes down to it, specialists always make more money than generalists. Carve out a niche in the market and own it.
2. Technology Focus: Okay, I am going to admit my bias on this one given my background in the field, but I firmly believe that if you have the ability to effectively create elearning/training for in-demand software systems, then you are setting yourself up for higher pay. Why? Because software systems are complex, and companies that hire for software instructional design have deep pockets. I remember being on a project where we were creating training for Oracle PeopleSoft (an ERP software). We hired a third-party consultant who had 30 years (yes, 30 years) of instructional design experience for PeopleSoft. The guy was a machine, and his work was flawless. He knew the ins and outs of the program so well that he actually saved the company money because he was efficient. He was so good that he was head-hunted while on our project and ended up leaving for an extremely well-known firm to work on (you guessed it), Oracle PeopleSoft. I don’t know this man’s salary, but I am willing to bet the house that his deep specialization in an in-demand, high-profile software pushed him to the very top of the salary spectrum.
3. Manage a Team: This might not be for everyone, but one sure-fire way to earn more as an instructional designer is to become a manager, or lead, of a team. This means that you will be doing less instructional design on a day-to-day basis, but you can still apply your knowledge to your reviews and guidance. It’s a fact of life, managers will always be paid more than the “worker bees”. Position yourself for more responsibility over time – even if it means leaving your employer for different opportunities. If you can prove to be an effective manager of people, your salary will reflect your worth to the organization.
There are certainly other ways to potentially increase your yearly salary as an instructional designer, but I believe these three ways are within your control today. Over time you will reap the natural benefits that come with experience. For now, focus your efforts on producing quality work-products and specialization, while simultaneously immersing yourself into industry trends and best practices.