Just 1 in 4 college seniors plan to negotiate their first salary—It ‘should always be on the table,' says career expert

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The class of 2024 longs for both job and financial security — and those priorities may be at odds when they negotiate the pay for their first jobs out of college.

Some 3 in 4 college seniors graduating next year say they're unsure whether they plan to negotiate their starting pay, that it will depend on the offer, or they're outright not planning to have the discussion, according to Handshake's latest survey of 1,148 students in the class of 2024.

Students say their main reason for not negotiating is they're worried an employer may rescind their offer if they do, followed by concerns that doing so will leave a bad impression.

The remaining 1 in 4 students say they "definitely" plan to negotiate.

Seniors' concerns are "not surprising" given the high-inflation economy and a persistently uncertain job market, where workers are still bracing for surprise layoffs, says Monne Williams, chief impact officer at Handshake.

But the fear of negotiating is "at odds" with many students' need for financial security, Williams adds. More than half of the class of 2024 say they carry student debt, and many of these students say they plan to work a side gig in addition to their full-time job because one salary won't be enough to cover their bills and debt payments.

These concerns are real and valid, Williams says, but she encourages soon-to-be grads to understand that "negotiation should always be on the table." To prepare, "take the mindset that employers expect you to negotiate," even in today's job market and economic climate, Williams says.

"Do your homework, be prepared, understand your own skills and experience as well as what the job is offering, then figure out what's most important to you and find ways to negotiate where you can," she adds.

New grads still have room to negotiate

New grads still have room to negotiate, even if they have fewer years of professional work experience. One way to figure out how much your experience is worth is to speak with someone with a similar skillset as yours and ask what kind of job offers they're fielding to "validate the salary is fair and consistent," Williams says.

Samantha Lenger, a 2020 grad, figured out her target salary range by telling her peers the range of offers she was getting; then she asked if it was in line with what they were seeing or expecting, too. She ultimately negotiated her salary over email and landed a $33,000 boost to her total compensation right out of college.

Ultimately, many young professionals may trust the offer they get first is final, "but there's always an opportunity to have the discussion" of different pay or benefits, Williams says. And finally, job seekers "have to be willing to walk away if the job isn't offering you what's most critical to you."

The gender gap starts early, but bosses play a role in closing it

Williams says it's important to have empathy for young professionals who've likely never negotiated before, as well as for those who have historically been discouraged from doing so.

For example, roughly one-third of women say they're confident they can negotiate the highest salary possible at a job they're qualified for, compared to nearly half of men, according to Handshake. Women are more likely than men to say they don't know how to negotiate, or they're worried negotiating will cost them the job offer or leave a bad impression.

Research shows women face a higher penalty when they negotiate — they're less likely to get as high of a counter, and they're more likely to receive negative feedback for making the ask, such as being labeled "bossy" or "aggressive."

"I don't think all of this is unfounded or purely a confidence problem," Williams says.

Rather, she says hiring teams play a large role in closing the gender wage gap at the beginning of the interviewing process.

"It's important for employers to think about how they respond to students who raise this conversation — how do you make it easier to respond to women who bring these topics up?" Williams says.

To put it another way, teams should consider whether they create an environment that makes it difficult or intimidating to have salary conversations.

A recruiter or hiring manager's first response to salary talks is crucial, Williams says: "If someone says they would like to discuss salary or the terms of an offer, be open to that conversation and be curious. Engage in questions the candidate has rather than shutting down that conversation quickly."

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