Sunday, September 12, 2004

reality check

Over dinner at Little Asia along Tomas Morato (selected by our youngest gourmand Ralph for their delectable Boneless Tilapia in Honey-Mayo Sauce), the gang and I engaged in talk about jobs like the old farts that some of us are becoming.

I grew up during the time when, when thinking about a stable future for their children, parents would insist on a certain hierarchy of professions. Tier One: Doctor, Lawyer; Tier Two: Architect, Engineer, and so on. It was drummed into my head that these were the jobs that guaranteed financial independence and a good life, along with respectability and a very high position in the social strata.

In fact, I was so brainwashed by their conviction that I moved through my formative years convinced that I needed to be a doctor or a lawyer. Nothing else would do. My little talent with words was considered of interest but of no real import or relevance to real life. When I applied for college, I landed a pre-med quota course at UP Diliman, which would enable me to make my final choice between law and medicine. Later, I came to my senses when my unhappiness became too much to bear and I abandoned the prescribed path, stunning my three parents (my mother and stepfather called in my biological father from the US so they could triple play me). My final choice was to go where my heart led me, and they all forecast doom, misery and inevitable poverty.

A few days ago, I began to gather information on how well these high priority professions pay.

I encountered an architect who works for a small firm with competitive pay. Only a few years younger than myself, he had the title of Senior Architect. His monthly salary is just around the same amount a fresh graduate working in a call center would make. Starting architects make as much as I would pay a Junior Designer in my own company.

With doctors, you need to be very well-connected or wealthy in the first place. For example, to have a clinic in the new hospital along Ortigas, you need to plunk down P10 million, in addition to other expenses. Or you work as an employee for a company like Clinica Manila (where we take Sage) with a stunningly low monthly wage augmented by your P300 consultation fees. Or even worse, you can work for the small derma clinics and make much less.

With law, unless you're into Tax Law or Corporate Law, your monthly take-home for the many rungs of the ladder is nowhere near the promised bonanza. I know of a trial lawyer who struggles to make ends meet: his salary is barely enough to support himself, his wife, two children and payments on their home. Unless you create a niche like my brother, it's going to be long and hard road.

It is not much different for other professions. For example, a new policeman makes around P12k a month, with incremental raises as they get promotions, all the way to the rank of Director which makes around P40k.

A manager at a resto chain makes around P15k, while it is minimum wage for staff-level positions and their equivalents (salesgirls, promofolk, waiters, and the like).

Insurance promises gigantic windfalls if you are a killer salesperson with incredible connections. Then you get to drive around in a Jaguar. Otherwise, you experience life in feast-or-famine mode.

Teachers continue to get underpaid compared to the private sector. You can spend years as a consultant in consultancy firms at around P12k - P15k. Think your MBA can help you? At one point in time, a brilliant acquaintance of mine with an MBA from the requisite impressive US school was making around P30k. Another MBA holder is currently jobless and is willing to work for peanuts.

Professional writing is not much better. You can freelance and get a word rate, averaging around P1.5k - P2.5k per article for magazines from the Summit Group, or be employed by a company with copy requirements for around P15k - P20k. Pure creative writers who dream of living off publishing royalties in the Philippines have to produce a large number of best-selling books in a short span of time, in an industry where print runs are generally 1,000 copies (with big print runs at around 10,000 copies).

The tech industry had its heyday with the bubble of irrational exuberance. At one point in time, designers could command up to P60k, with managerial salaries over P100k. Those days, of course, are gone, with a few sterling exceptions.

Advertising and marketing companies exist in an odd space. On one hand, if you are a creative, you are pretty much taken care of. If you consistently do good work and bring in awards, your pay will grow as you climb up the pyramid, earning anywhere from P30k to P80k and even higher. However, in the same industry, rank and file (and account executives) operate along the same low pay level: start at around P8k and progress to the twenties.

Creatives also do well in similar industries (acting, directing, production). Actors can do TV series and get around P50k per episode or do TV guesting at around P10k to 15k (they get bigger paychecks with films). TV advertising directors can make from P80k upwards. MTV directors can charge along P100k+, depending on the producers - but if you're new and unheard of, chances are you'll be doing it for much much less, if you're tasked to do it at all. Composers begin at around P30k for a jingle if you're friends. Food stylists can make a killing, given the fact that so few of high caliber exist - they charge P7.5k- P25k per plate (per layout). While starting photographers make around P5k - P10k per shoot, big name photographers play at P150k+ per day (there's also cutthroat competition for the wedding market).

For me though, nothing beats having your own business. The risks and headaches are terrifying, but everything balances out. Your small business can grow and take care of your future. Owners of restos, retail stores and other small businesses can pay themselves what their books can afford.

At a recent job fair, the organizers were forced to extend their hours and days to accommodate the thousands of people looking for work. Growing unemployment is a reality, with thousands of new graduates joining the ranks of the jobless every year. Openings are biased towards those who matriculated from the "top" schools: UP, Ateneo and La Salle. But having a diploma from those schools is not a guarantee of a job, much less good pay.

What does all this mean?

When Sage is of the appropriate age for such things, I will tell her:

1. Whatever you choose to be, make sure you like it. Find a job that fits you or, if it does not exist, create it. Follow your bliss but manage your own expectations.
2. You do not have to be a doctor or a lawyer or a corporate person to be comfortable. Define what makes you comfortable and work to achieve it. Do not buy in the previous generations' flawed reasoning spawned by the need for social positioning.
3. Do not undervalue your creative abilities. Contrary to what I was taught to believe in, words or a good eye for beauty CAN feed you. Develop your skill sets in language, writing, art and similar lines.
4. Look at starting a business. Even if, like me, you don't think you're a businessman, you could be surprised.
5. The good life isn't about money, so that shouldn't be your number one priority. But if you want to be able to travel around Europe, barefoot and carefree for three years, you need to be able to pay for it.
6. Abolish the notion of job hierarchy from your mind. As long the people holding jobs maintain their values and principles, no one job is intrinsically superior to the next.

Apart from that, I really don't know.

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