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Job Satisfaction for Technical Communicators

This article is based on a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the MA in Technical Authorship degree, awarded by Sheffield Hallam University. This work is copyright © 2005 David Farbey and Sheffield Hallam University. Unauthorised copying is prohibited, although you are welcome to link to this page. Please contact the author, David Farbey, if you link to this page, or if you would like to receive a copy of the dissertation.

Technical communicators are generally satisfied with their jobs, yet they appear to be less satisfied than the average for working people in Britain. This was the headline result of a web-based survey of job satisfaction for technical communicators which I carried out in 2003, as background for my MA dissertation, at Sheffield Hallam University. My study examined the hypothesis that job satisfaction would decline as the size of the work organization grew. The data I collected did not support this theory.

I also collected data about the respondents and their work environment, and I looked for possible correlations between demographic and environmental factors and job satisfaction, but found very few statistically significant relationships. Other findings indicated that more than 87% of technical communicators are still working on printed manuals, and that about two-thirds of technical communicators world-wide are women. This article describes my survey and presents some of my results.

Job satisfaction

"Job satisfaction" describes a person's general feeling of well-being at work. It is widely believed that job satisfaction attitudes are associated with certain behaviours in the workplace, such as performance, productivity, absenteeism, and staff turnover. This is why job satisfaction is of interest to social scientists and employers, as well as to working people themselves.

High job satisfaction is taken as an indication of a flourishing organisation, and something to be proud of. People may be attracted to work in an industry or for a company where job satisfaction appears to be high.

Personal experience

My personal experience as a technical communicator influenced my choice of research topic. When I moved from a large business organisation to a much smaller one I noticed that I felt more satisfied at work. I was puzzled by this feeling as it appeared to be paradoxical. Working for a large employer had material advantages, such as the generous work space, and the pension and insurance arrangements that a small start-up company could not offer. Nevertheless, I felt that working in a small company offered me more opportunities to use my skills and to be involved and influential in my job. The satisfaction gained from these aspects of my job outweighed some of the disadvantages of working for a small company such as lower pay and fewer benefits.

After I found research evidence that indicated that job satisfaction tends to decline as organisations grow in size, I wanted to see if this finding applied to technical communicators in general, and I included questions related to organisational size in my study.

Why study job satisfaction for technical communicators?

Although plenty of studies have looked at job satisfaction for particular professions, such as teachers, doctors, nurses, librarians, or social workers, I could not find a previous formal study of job satisfaction for technical communicators. This may be because technical communication is not a widely recognised career or easily identified profession. Survey methods and results

I looked for recent British job satisfaction surveys and methods to use in my study. I based my questionnaire on a published comparison of job satisfaction questions from recognised surveys such as the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), which is conducted under the auspices of the Economic and Social Research Council. The seven-point Likert scale for responses (in which respondents classified their answers from "extremely satisfied" to "extremely dissatisfied") that I used was also based on BHPS practice.

In addition to a list of 19 questions about their satisfaction with various aspects of their jobs, I asked respondents for information about the size, age, and structure of their work environment, to see whether organisational factors had any bearing on their responses to job satisfaction questions.

I made a pragmatic decision to use a web-based survey as I felt it would be easier for me to administer and manage, and that it would be cheaper than a paper-based questionnaire, despite certain drawbacks.

Before conducting my survey I ran two pilot studies. The first was used to test the acceptability if the questions, and to provide me with some test data. I used the second pilot study to gauge the acceptability of the online survey format at the SurveyMonkey web site. 22 technical writers took part in the first pilot and 49 in the second pilot, providing valuable feedback.

The live survey and results

The live survey was launched at the beginning of March 2003 and was available for about a month. I received over 300 responses, but only those who answered "Yes" to the question "Are you currently working as an employee?" were allowed to answer the job satisfaction questions. This was done to enable me to compare my data with BHPS results. In the results that follow, "respondents" means all those who answered the survey and "employees" means those who defined themselves as employees and therefore answered the job satisfaction questions.

Descriptive Statistics

Amongst all respondents, 94 were aged between 25 and 34 years (32.0% of those answering this question), 90 were aged between 35 and 44 (30.6%) and 85 were aged between 45 and 54 (28.9%). Amongst employees, 87 were aged between 25 and 34 years (34.4% of those answering this question), 80 were aged between 35 and 44 (31.6%) and 64 were aged between 45 and 54 (25.3%).

Just under two thirds of the respondents were women (64.4%). This is in agreement with statistics from the STC, in which women made up 64% of its worldwide membership in July 2004 were women. In both the all respondents results and the employees results, the largest single group was women aged 30 - 34 (n=45, and n=43 respectively), followed by women aged 45 - 49, (n=33 and n=26 respectively).

Most respondents had less than 9 years experience of technical communications. 173 respondents (58.9%) and 153 employees (60.5%) were in this category. However, 42 respondents (14.3%) and 37 employees (14.6%) had twenty or more years experience. 21 respondents (7.2%), and 18 employees (6.9%) had no post-secondary formal education, while 82 respondents (28.2%) and 67 employees (36.6%) had Master's degrees or Doctorates.

In contrast to the high level of education in general, comparatively few respondents had followed university-level technical communications courses. Only 40 respondents (13.7%), and 32 employees (12.8%), had occupation-specific Bachelor's or Master's degrees.

Although the survey was made available to an international audience, most respondents were English speakers. 37.0% of respondents (n=107) and 34.7% of employees (n=87) were located in the UK and 47.8% of respondents (n=138) and 49.8% of employees (n=125) were located in the USA.

99.3% of respondents (n=288) and 99.3% of employees (n=240) worked either in English only, or in English and another language (Table 10), and 94.1% of respondents (n=273) and 94.0% of employees (n=236) spoke English as their mother tongue.

Data on employment of respondents

60% of respondents and 59.1% of employees were working in information technology. The next highest named sector was manufacturing with 8.1% of respondents and 8.3% of employees, followed by engineering and construction with 6.0% of respondents and 6.3% of employees. 223 respondents (77.4%) described themselves as full-time employees, with a further 2.4% describing themselves as part-time employees.

41 respondents (14.7%) and 23 employees (9.1%) worked in a company with 25 or fewer staff, and 103 respondents (37.6%) and 85 employees (34.0%) worked in a department with 5 or fewer staff. 83 respondents (29.9%) and 79 employees (31.5%) worked in a company with 1,000 or more employees, and 12 respondents (4.4%) and 10 employees (4.0%) worked in a department with 100 or more staff.

27.6% of respondents (n=74) and 27.9% of employees (n=70) reported that their supervisor was a technical communications professional.

Job Satisfaction Frequencies

In terms of overall job satisfaction 64.9% of respondents were somewhat satisfied, mainly satisfied, or completely satisfied with their jobs. 64.2% of respondents were satisfied (somewhat satisfied or better) with their pay.

The factors about which the smallest proportion of respondents expressed satisfaction were promotion opportunities (36.1% somewhat satisfied or better), training opportunities (40.8%), management (44.2%), job security (50.0%) and the amount of work (55.3%).

The factors about which the largest proportion of respondents expressed satisfaction were their colleagues (84.6% somewhat satisfied or better), hours worked (76.6%), their supervisor (75.4%), the work itself (73.9%), and their ability to use their own initiative (72.3%).

Comparisons with BHPS data

The British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) currently includes five questions on job satisfaction. I filtered my data to show results only for those respondents who reported that they were working in Britain, and compared this with BHPS results.

The sample size for the BHPS was more than 100 times larger than my sample of UK respondents (9,400 compared to 84). The proportion of respondents in the current study who were somewhat satisfied, mainly satisfied, or completely satisfied with these five aspects of their jobs was lower than the proportion of BHPS respondents. The result for pay was 61.9% somewhat satisfied or better, compared to 71.1% in the BHPS; for job security 49.9% compared to 79.7%; for the work itself 71.4% compared to 81.7%; for the hours worked 73.8% compared to 75.7%; and for overall job satisfaction 54.8% compared to 82.6%. This comparison suggests that technical communicators in Britain are far less satisfied with these aspects of their jobs than the average British employee.

I was unable to compare my results with from BHPS respondents with occupations similar to technical communications as the number of qualifying BHPS respondents was far too small.

Findings

In my analysis, I looked for correlations between demographic or environment factors and individual job satisfaction factors or aggregate and overall job satisfaction, to establish if any of them were predictors job satisfaction. I tested 11 demographic and environmental variables against 21 surveyed and computed job satisfaction variables, using "two-tailed" tests for statistical significance. Only a handful of these tests revealed statistically significant results, and these were not in areas predicted by my hypotheses. Two environmental factors did stand out. Working in a company or department with other technical communicators, and having a supervisor who was a technical communications professional, both resulted in higher satisfaction for certain job aspects, though not for overall satisfaction.

Although my hypotheses predicted higher job satisfaction levels in smaller companies, the results showed higher satisfaction levels in larger companies. I looked at a number of reasons that might explain this, including:

More than 90% of respondents found out about the survey through a number of professional mailing lists. I estimated the combined membership of these lists as about 7,000, and I had 272 responses from them, making a 3.85% sample. This sample was slightly smaller than recommended for a population of this size. I was also aware that my sample was self-selected which is generally considered less reliable.

My survey was internet-based while other surveys such as the BHPS use face-to-face interviews. It is possible that respondents regarded an Internet based survey which they could complete in a few minutes as somehow less serious than surveys using other methods, and that as a result they gave less considered answers to the questions.

The technical communicator population surveyed in this study was strikingly heterogeneous, especially when compared to some of the profession-specific surveys in the literature. Respondents came from a range of industries and from a variety of countries. Unlike medicine, education, or librarianship, technical communications is not a regulated or standardised profession, and the specific roles as well as the career paths of technical communicators vary widely.

These limitations in my study mean that it is difficult to draw general conclusions about technical communicators from these findings. There is however much scope for further research. A future study may look as suggested above, at a particular sub-group of technical communicators, selected by a more specific occupational definition, or by a more restricted geographical location.

Instead of looking at what technical communicators were doing, a study might look at how well they were doing it. This would require some kind of standardised appraisal of the quality of a respondent's work which would then be correlated to the respondents' attitude to their job measured by job satisfaction questions.


What work do technical communicators do?

In December 1999 I carried out a survey, on a much smaller scale than the present study, and asked similar questions about the type of work being undertaken by technical communicators. A selected comparison of those results and the results of the current survey is given in the table below. Although the results are not directly comparable, it is interesting to note that in the current survey 87.4% of all respondents reported that they are working on printed manuals compared to 95% of respondents in the earlier survey.

These results indicate that technical communicators are genuinely "multi-tasking" professionals. It is also clear that despite the widespread movement to online delivery of documentation, the printed manual remains a very popular format.

Survey date

December 1999

March - April 2003

No. of respondents

75

305

Printed manuals

95%

87.4%

Online documentation

83%

89.8%

Online help

n/a

63.3%

Online help (WinHelp)

76%

n/a

Online help (HTML Help, NetHelp or JavaHelp)

39%

n/a

Other documentation

39%

n/a

Training material

n/a

52.1%

Marketing material

n/a

37.4%

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