Technical Writing Jobs Back on the Rise in U.S.

Technical Writing Jobs on the Rise in US

Update March 12, 2015: Just wanted to note that the upward trend in Technical Writer hires continues, and in fact for this month (March 2015) I have just recorded the highest number of job postings for Technical Writers since I started keeping track of things three years ago. Expect an update on this and more at the PDX DITA webinar next week.

I know that this is normally a DITA-oriented blog (expect some DITA-related stuff near the end) but I thought that this news was worth reporting: after two years in the doldrums, technical writing jobs in the US are on the rise.

For the past couple of years I have been keeping track of the popularity of “DITA” within job postings on Indeed.com, the most popular job posting aggregator website in the States. This has given me insights as to the technologies, software and standards that are in demand by employers, and I have talked about some of these trends in the past.

One other clear trend that I haven’t reported on up until now was that I saw a steady decline in the number of “technical writer” jobs in the U.S. Here’s what I saw at the end of last year:

Technical Writer Jobs on Indeed.com for Q3 2012-Q4 2013
Technical Writer Jobs on Indeed.com for Q3 2012-Q4 2013

There are two things that emerge from this: there are seasonal trends to technical writing job postings (typically peaking in the early summer), and that there has been a steady decline in the number of technical writer job postings since August 2012. Job postings peaked at 2,900 job posts in September of 2012, and by the end of last December were down to less than 2,500.

This drop of 400 technical writing jobs nationwide is not a lot when compared to overall job numbers, may not seem like a lot, but it represents a significant amount when compared to all of the technical writing job posted. The downward trend was the most disturbing thing to me, suggesting a steady erosion in the number of technical writing jobs available.

Were Other Factors at Play?
To be fair, this gradual downward trend could be due to other factors, such as:

  • A shift in labelling, with the growth of parallel job titles like “Technical Communicator”
  • Indeed.com becoming less prevalent as a place to find job postings
  • Signs of a continuing general economic downturn
  • Outsourcing these types of jobs to other countries.

The first one can be easily dismissed, as “Technical Writer” is still by far the most popular and well-recognized job title out there, any many jobs that are listed as “Technical Communicator” have considerable cross-over in the search results with those listed as “Technical Writers”. Like it or not, HR organizations and third-party hiring firms still think of a “Service Writer”, “Cyber Tech Writer”, “Courseware Writer” and “Technical Communicator” as merely variants of the more commonly-recognized “Technical Writer” job title and typically insert “Technical Writer” into a job posting somewhere within these other job titles to ensure improved search results.

So has Indeed.com become less prominent as a popular job aggregator website? While it is hard to be entirely certain of this, available evidence says “no”. In February of last year a web traffic firm listed Indeed.com as the top search engine used by those seeking a job in the U.S., with 17.3 million visitors hitting the site in January 2013 alone. A more recent piece from CNBC lists Indeed.com as the “online jobsearch brand of the year”, while also mentioning that the job market is growing.

The economy? It certainly didn’t help, what with the last economic downturn wiping out 8.7 million jobs in the US shortly after January 2008. But the fact is that job growth overall in the States has been climbing steadily since February 2010, which ran counter the trend seen here.

Outsourcing is also a possibility. I can speak from personal experience in this area, as I have worked with or trained technical writing teams in India and China over the past few years. Back when I started as a technical writer almost 20 years ago the idea of outsourcing technical writing wasn’t an option, but it has become increasingly common since then. Outsourcing articles like this one place “Writers” at the top of the list, and this report to Congress places technical writing jobs under the category of “Offshorable” (though not “Highly Offshorable”). While it is easy to point to job offshoring as a factor, I suspect that its effects are smaller than most people would think. Technical writing tends to work best in an environment where the technical writer is embedded with the development team, and the people I met and trained were working directly with local engineering teams – it just made sense to have people where the work was taking place. (This is also a reason why technical writing work is not “highly offshorable”).

Turning a Corner in 2014
What a started to see beginning in January this year was a steady climb in the number of technical writer job postings on Indeed.com. Here’s how things currently look like:

Technical Writer Jobs on Indeed.com for Q3 2012-Q2 2014
Technical Writer Jobs on Indeed.com for Q3 2012-Q2 2014

This could be another seasonal trend, but at this same time last year there was a significant drop in the number of technical writing jobs posted, and (so far) that’s not the case this year. While we still haven’t returned to the peak number of postings seen back in September 2012, the overall trend appears to be improving. It is also evolving, as those who are familiar with the latest technical writing standards are commanding higher starting wages.

The DITA Angle
Remember when I said that I’d bring DITA into this somehow? Well it turns out that employers are willing to pay a premium for technical writers with DITA experience. One of the other things posted on Indeed.com are salary estimates for particular jobs along with specialties, like DITA. Here’s what the current salary listing for “technical writer” looks like when paired with particular writing standards:

Technical Writer + Standard Avg Wage Rate for June 2014
Technical Writer + Standard Avg Wage Rate for June 2014

While I haven’t been keeping track of wage trends for as long as job posting numbers, what you see here appears to be representative.

  • Technical writers with FrameMaker experience command more salary than those using MS Word/Office (which I am sure will come as some relief to many people out there)
  • Technical writers with XML experience command more salary than the average technical writer
  • Technical writers with DITA experience command more salary than the average technical writer, and more than those with just FrameMaker experience

What about those with SGML and S1000D experience? The wage estimate numbers for technical writers with S1000D experience fluctuates from month to month, this month commanding more than DITA technical writers, last month on average commanding less. Oddly enough though, those with SGML experience regularly fall below the average wage estimate for “regular” technical writers, I suspect mainly because there is relatively little demand for it. Time will tell if these are real trends or not.

All I can say definitively is that if you are looking for a job in the technical writing market in the States, this is the best period in the past couple of years for you to do so. And if you have DITA experience, you will likely find yourself ahead of the pack in terms of what to expect in terms of a starting salary.

About

"DITAWriter" is Keith Schengili-Roberts. I work for IXIASOFT as a DITA Specialist/Information Architect. And I like to write about DITA and the technical writing community. To get ahold of me you can email me at: keith@ditawriter.com.

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