The $54,000 Strategy: A Bold Solution to Undervaluing our Jewish Professionals

Big Ideas Cover[This article appears in The Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Vol. 88, No.1/2, Winter/Spring 2013.]

by Mark S. Young

What if entry-level Jewish communal professionals earned $54,000 plus attractive health benefits, and received effective managerial guidance and visible opportunities for career growth? What if starting middle managers earned $108,000, plus meaningful opportunities to improve their professional, managerial, and leadership skill sets? What if?

If that came to pass, the field of Jewish communal service would easily attract and retain the best and brightest, and employers could then select and retain the most intelligent, creative, and productive professionals available. If these best and brightest were providing services and undertaking leadership roles, our institutions and shared future would have an an even stronger likelihood of long-term success.

Making the Case

The Jewish community is at a crossroads regarding the recruitment and retention of its professionals. Many exceptionally talented individuals whose hearts desire to serve the Jewish community professionally are choosing for-profit jobs or better compensated nonprofit positions, in order to survive and feel secure financially. Many other talented individuals dedicate their time, energy, and creativity to our important work in spite of sub-par compensation, supervision, and professional development, relative to other career paths.

In addition, we in the Jewish community send mixed messages regarding what we value from emerging adults. To excite and engage the next generations we pour enormous resources into day schools, Jewish camps, and programs such as Birthright Israel. We also provide substantial financial resources to top-notch graduate programs and scholarships to those preparing for Jewish professional careers – enabling individuals to pursue credentials without incurring mountains of debt. Yet, when graduates of these programs go to work for Jewish communal organizations they are frequently underpaid, poorly managed, and rarely provided meaningful career growth opportunities. Why does the valuing stop?

Finally, it is rare that we can identify Jewish organizations that effectively and with intentionality manage their talent by providing their employees with ongoing professional development to support career growth or offer substantive performance evaluations connected to compensation increases and promotions. This absence occurs partly because many senior professionals were never formally trained in management, evaluation, or supervision. Many practitioners are placed in management roles with no real guidance. Consequently, subordinates and organizations suffer, experiencing lower job satisfaction and higher turnover.

The $54,000 Strategy

Jewish organizations ought to be “employers of choice,” inviting all talented professionals in our field as “the best place to work and where you will feel strongly valued.” Therefore, I propose a big idea and bold solution: Compensate talented individuals pursuing careers in Jewish professional life well, really well, monetarily and otherwise. Do not force talented people to choose between earning respectable money and receiving strong career support vs. realizing their passion for service to the Jewish community. Why cannot they have both? It should be our collective priority that Jewish professionals feel valued, appreciated, and nurtured to excel and thus be encouraged to use their talents in the field of Jewish communal service. Implementing four strategies will help us accomplish this goal.

1. Set Higher Salary Levels With Increases Based on Performance

The symbolic salary figure of $54,000 demonstrates the value the community should place on the work employees will undertake. It is significantly higher then the $20K-$30K salary range of many entry-level professional positions. This or other significantly higher salary levels will have an immediate impact on our talent pool, attracting increasingly strong, creative, and well-prepared candidates. If it also becomes clear that promotion and pay increases are based on performance, with clear job descriptions and thoughtful performance evaluation programs administered by trained managers, young professionals will be increasingly motivated to stay and eager to pursue positions of progressively more responsible work.

How can we pay for these high starting salaries? Consider the cost of employee turnover. The lost time, advertising dollars spent to recruit a successor, and repeated training result in less productivity and higher expenses. Turnover costs, which can be up to 25-30% of a person’s salary, could be paid to your talented employee instead! The increased motivation of staff who receive higher salaries can also lead to increased productivity and stronger products and services, which may ultimately generate more revenue from consumers of fee-for-service programs, higher donations, and stronger grant applications and awards.

2. Train Supervisors to Be Effective Managers

Each Jewish communal institution should require supervisors to complete management training programs that cover motivation and recognition strategies and how to properly evaluate performance and provide constructive feedback; these elements of supervision maximize the value of what should be weekly (yes, weekly!) meetings with subordinates. The old adage holds true: People stay (or leave) because of their bosses more often than because of their role or the organization. Supervisors should be a reason to stay, not leave.

Providing this management training will be expensive, but slashing training budgets feels contrary to a Jewish community that values learning. This training can also be an opportunity for institutional collaboration. Organizations can pool resources to deliver joint training programs, saving funds and increasing cooperation. The local JCC or Federation is an optimal place to stimulate these collaborations.

3. Demonstrate Value by Compensating Beyond the Dollar

If Jews value education and ongoing learning, then professional development should be a staple of all employees’ job experience. Require all employees to attend seminars or courses to improve professional skill sets on a quarterly or bimonthly basis (at no cost to the employee!), demonstrating that we value their professional growth and development of their talents. This will increase current performance and yield a noticeable return on investment.

4. Compensate Managers So That They Choose to Stay Long Term

Many industries (particularly for-profits) provide substantial increases in salary and/or bonuses to mid-managers, mostly based on performance and their assumption of progressively greater responsibilities. We should not try to match for-profit salaries. Jewish organizations as nonprofits have limited revenue streams. However, we should commit to salary levels that motivate mid-level managers to remain in the field.

How do we pay for salaries that are much higher than current salary scales? We hire only when necessary and provide ongoing training and support that increase job satisfaction. This will greatly reduce turnover costs. In addition, hiring and keeping the best talent – attracted by these smart compensation strategies – will yield stronger productivity and will likely also increase revenue, as argued earlier.

Commencing a Conversation

I imagine this article will generate dissent and controversy. That is the point. I hope that this begins a larger conversation among the leaders of Jewish organizations. In an economy yet to be fully reenergized, increasing salaries, adding training programs, and implementing new managerial systems may be currently out of reach, but we cannot put off these strategies indefinitely. Valuing our Jewish professionals in significant and meaningful ways, just as we value our Jewish youth engagement and graduate programs, is essential and will make a significant positive impact on our community. It is also the strategically sound and morally right thing to do.

Mark S. Young is the Program Coordinator of the Experiential Learning Initiative at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Mark is also the Board Chair of the Advancing Jewish Professionals of New York City. He completed his undergraduate studies at McGill University and received both a Masters of Public Administration in Non-Profit Management and Masters of Arts in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University.

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