• 1.  Inadequate CAUT Pay (and how to address it?)

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 02-17-2024 14:53

    At the start of this year I let my admin team know that this will be my last semester at UNL (marking 6 school years). It has been a rewarding and professionally and personally enriching experience, and I'm a far better technician today than I would have been had I simply continued on with my private tuning business. That said, I've had my share of frustrations, from the 90mi/day commuting toll, to navigating a few (but not many, thankfully) difficult personalities, but chief among my frustrations has been the complete wage stagnation. My starting pay was essentially the same as Richard West's pay when he retired from the position 18 years ago, and now, 6 years later, I'm actually bringing home less per paycheck than when I started, thanks in part to the retirement plan kicking in after a year and a "raise" last year that didn't come close to making up for that. Factor in inflation and cost-of-living increases (without the accompanying increases in salary) and the fiscal reality is even worse.

    I knew going into the position that the pay was low for the workload (now 111 instruments), but at the time it made sense for me, as I was relatively new to the state, had only been working full time as a tech for a couple years (as a result of the slow grind of building up the business after moving, while working a secondary part time job), and while it was a slight pay cut at the time, the benefits are nice, and more crucially, I assumed that the pay would at least increase at some appreciable, if slow, rate, particularly if my job performance was good. I did not anticipate taking home less after 6 years at the position.

    Like many CAUTs, I've supplemented my income with private tunings (which amounted to 3-5 tunings a week on average - or roughly one day of work/wk). When doing some end-of-year bookkeeping on that business, I realized that my gross pay last year for that one day of work a week was slightly more than 60% of my gross pay from the university. Granted, that's not taking benefits into account, but it only takes a little simple math to realize how quickly outside work would surpass UNL, benefits and all. Hence my decision to move on.

    The director of the school of music (who has only been on the job since just before the start of the fall semester) has been very gracious and understanding, and since that conversation I've been sharing as much information as I can to impress upon him, and those above him, that they're going to have a very hard time finding another technician if they don't reevaluate their classification of and compensation for the piano technician role. The unfortunate broader reality is that, in the midst of consecutive years of 8 figure budget deficits, I doubt changing the piano tech role and offering a larger compensation package is high on the administration's list of priorities. I have confidence that my boss will advocate for that, but I don't have confidence in those higher up in the food chain being receptive. As an example of that lack of confidence, we are almost at the halfway point in the construction of a (loooong overdue) new music building, and my boss had to put up quite a fight over the winter break to convince higher ups that omitting sound insulation from the new music building was not an effective or logical cost-cutting measure (the mind boggles at the inner workings of the brains that cooked up that idea).

    Nebraska isn't the friendliest state towards higher-education, but I know it's also not exactly an outlier when it comes to paying its workers a competitive wage. I think it's fair to say that most higher-ed job postings shared here are usually significantly under compensated for the workload. It seems many universities operate under the assumption that it's better to deal with hiring replacements every 5-10 years than paying someone enough to want to stay long term (I am the 3rd technician since Richard retired in 2006). The problem with this is, at least in Nebraska, there isn't exactly a huge pool of qualified candidates for a CAUT gig. Of those that are qualified, many are already well established enough that there's no incentive for them to take the massive pay cut. The current compensation package certainly isn't going to attract an experienced tech to move here from out of state. So that leaves the university with young, relatively new techs who want the experience and challenge of a CAUT gig, but also ones who will likely move on relatively quickly, especially once they realize that their wages are stagnant at best, and effectively slowly decrease against inflation and cost-of-living changes, regardless of their performance in the role. And maybe that's a trade-off universities are perfectly happy with, but it seems a dangerous game when there isn't a huge pool of candidates to begin with.

    All this rambling is to say: is there a way out of this? Is there a way to get universities to see how critical the role of a piano technician is to a school of music? And to appreciate the value in offering compensation packages that, if not outright competitive with what a full time technician could make on the open market, are at least not terribly far off from that and also offer an avenue for meaningful wage growth over time? Is that really too much to ask?

    Adam Schulte-Bukowinski, RPT
    Piano Technician
    Glenn Korff School of Music
    University of Nebraska at Lincoln

  • 2.  RE: Inadequate CAUT Pay (and how to address it?)

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 02-17-2024 16:46

    I have not done CAUT work (although I would really like to someday), but having witnessed things via my spouse as a recent Ph.D. grad... Pay for University staff (excepting tenured faculty, upper administration, and STEM to a degree) is pretty abysmal across the board. Depending on who you ask, the problem seems to come from some combination of administrative bloat, decreased public funding, blowing too much of the budget on unneeded amenities, and probably other things I'm not thinking of.  (Much ink has been spilled over the problem, especially from the standpoint of exploding tuition costs -- I'd rather let folks read about it on their own rather than trying to give a bad summary.)  At any rate, looking at it from the perspective of a university employee, I honestly wonder how far we are from a crisis of them really quitting en masse.  I think they've gotten away with it so far because people will take crappy underpaid jobs for _some_ period of time hoping to work their way up to something better.

    IMO the best chance of salary improvement for CAUTs, is from this broader problem finally being addressed.  Perhaps there are more localized strategies that people have had success with.

    Watching the replies with interest.

    Nathan Monteleone RPT
    Fort Worth TX
    (817) 675-9494

  • 3.  RE: Inadequate CAUT Pay (and how to address it?)

    Registered Piano Technician
    Posted 02-17-2024 17:56
    Unfortunately, this is a problem across the board. To answer your question, Adam, no, most universities don't care. At least not the bean counters. There might be some faculty members, especially the piano professors,  who might notice the difference, but they are in the same boat, in that they don't have any influence over the administrators. And most of the faculty, as per my experience at Alabama, don't know the difference, either. 
    As long as the stands are full on Saturdays, no one cares. 

    As with you, working at the university was a great experience, and I like my part time job at UNF. But I feel sorry for those schools that want a good music department but are not willing to pay someone to properly take care of the instruments. I don't know what it's going to take to change the attitude, but that's not my problem. I'm glad you got enough clients to make up the difference is pay and benefits.

     BTW, here is a funny story. When I was at Alabama, the tech position at a school in Colorado opened up. I applied to be closer to our son but was told the pay was less than what I was making. When I told the chair of the department that, he proudly said I could make up the difference by working on the side. A lot of people will call you, he said, because you are the university tuner. I said to him, "You want me to work full time for you, and then overtime so that you can afford to keep me."  He said, yes. Then I asked him what part time job he has to supplement his position at the school? He didn't like that and hung up. 

    This is basically what universities are asking of us. They want us to work part time to be able to afford to work full time for them. We need to fight back.