Vaporwages

Tech pay isn't what the Times might have you think.

CHOKE DOWN THAT raging envy and tell your green-eyed monster to stop pining after the greenbacks the next guy's making. Times aren't quite as flush in the local tech world as The Seattle Times has you thinking. Shortly before Boeing and its machinists settled on a contract, the Times reported that the Puget Sound-area economy had undergone a revolution: In 1998, the total payroll of the local "software industry" had surpassed that of "aerospace" (i.e., Boeing and its suppliers). The stinger was in the numbers: About 23,500 "software workers" in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties earned a total of nearly $6.8 billion, while 110,000 aerospace workers earned just $6 billion. That would mean local software workers' salaries average $287,700 a year. So much for outbidding them for the house of your dreams.

Last week the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, which is trying to organize those who toil in the fields of Bill Gates, issued a rejoinder that was even longer than the original "misleading" article. WashTech has an obvious interest here: It's hard to rouse sympathy or union spirit when your oppressed workers make $287,700. But it's on the money when it says the data the Times presented were incomplete.

The Times did note that that figure is mostly based on stock options, the old golden choke-chain. It didn't mention that options only become "income" when they're cashed in and may have been earned many years earlier. The recent wave of veteran Microsofties retiring to get lives and scuba lessons means a flood of this new "income." And a few mega-millionaires cashing in pushed the average way up: The average salary of King County "software workers" was $290,540, but their median wage was just $32.37 an hour (which, at 40 hours a week, works out to about $67,000).

More important, thousands of software workers, and thousands more folks who are generally seen as working in the same tech industry as "software workers," weren't included in that average. The Times considered only the largest of the nine categories into which the state sorts companies providing "computer-related services." That category, "prepackaged software," includes Microsoft, Adobe, Visio, and 330 other companies in the three central Puget Sound counties. It doesn't include 1,888 other companies in the fields of "computer programming services," "integrated systems design," "information retrieval services," "data preparation and processing," and the rental, repair, and operation of computers. These employed 17,245 people in 1998; many, perhaps most, could fairly be called "software workers." Those who worked in King County made on average $62,100 a year, and their median wages ranged from $15.06 to $30.77 an hour, depending on business category. Those in Pierce and Snohomish averaged a little over $40,000 a year.

The Times' tally also didn't include Microsoft's shadow legion—6,000-plus contract workers. The outside agencies that nominally employ these are lumped under "Help Supply Services," along with Labor Ready; employees of such services averaged $27,405 in King County in 1998.

Nor did the tally include employees of Amazon.com., Homegrocer.com, go2net, and other firms that sell things over the Internet or advertising on the Internet. They're counted under various retail and media categories, even though you think of them as tech companies. Of course, some of them might skew the average upward again after their early stock run-ups. The whole pot may be bigger, but the typical share ain't nearly what the Times' focus suggests.

The state's data also point to another, rather different conclusion. If all these workers were included and a fuller reckoning were taken of this region's "software" payroll, it would surely exceed the aerospace payroll by several billion dollars, not just $800 million.

 
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