By Saul Carliner | STC Fellow and Yuan Chen
In the early 2000s, STC conducted a branding study to identify its “brand profile.” A marketing communications firm that specialized in branding conducted a number of focus groups to identify who technical communicators are as people, and how to communicate that to the world. They concluded that technical communicators were predominantly female, wore comfortable work clothing and sensible shoes, and that Lisa Simpson—the smartest of The Simpsons children—characterized them.
But what does the recently conducted census say about who technical communicators are and how they ended up in careers in technical communication? The first section of the census provides some insights. It reports what participants shared about their demographics and their educational and professional backgrounds. Then it reports what participants shared about their jobs and the employers for whom they work.
Demographics of Technical Communicators
What types of people work in technical communication? The demographics reported in the census provide some general insights about age, gender, and racial and cultural affiliations.
Technical communicators tend to skew older: 48 percent of participants in the census are age 50 or older, and the largest age group is age 56 to 60. On one hand, this aligns with current workforce projections, which suggest that the largest growing segments of the workforce are 50 or older. On the other hand, the low percentage of workers under the age of 35 raises concerns about the long-term status of the profession. Figure 1 shows the ages reported by participants in the census.
The majority of technical communicators (57 percent) are female; 40 percent are male and 1 percent identified as other. Two percent chose not to identify their gender.
Racial and Cultural Associations
Diversity appears to be a challenge in technical communication. Eighty-one percent identified as White. Association with other groups ranges from 2 to 5 percent. Figure 2 shows the racial and cultural affiliations reported by participants in the census.
Educational and Professional Backgrounds
How did technical communicators end up in the field? This section explores that issue by reporting on the backgrounds of technical communicators: educational attainment, fields of study, where they started their adult working careers, certification status, and the length of time in the profession.
The majority of technical communicators have degrees, with 63 percent holding or currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree, 41 percent holding or currently pursuing a master’s degree, and 11 percent holding or currently pursuing a PhD.
Fields of Study
Although technical communicators are educated, most do not pursue academic degrees in the field. Only 32 percent have degrees in the field, 68 percent do not
So what did people study? Although slightly less than a third of participants have a degree in technical communication, communication—more broadly defined to include creative writing, English, journalism, and professional writing—is the most common field of study at both the bachelor’s and master’s level. Humanities, social sciences, and engineering are the next most popular broad areas of study, with people in the field studying in such diverse fields as education, information technology, library science, and mathematics. Figure 3 shows the number of participants in the broad areas of study of business, communications, engineering, fine arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences.
When Careers Started
The majority of technical communicators (59 percent) began their adult working careers outside of the field. Only 41 percent of participants in the census started their careers in the field. In other words, for many people, technical communication is a career they start later in their career journeys.
In recent years, interest in certification—the validation of competence in a particular field by a third party—has grown and, along with that interest, the number of certifications available has also grown. In fact, STC relaunched its certification program in 2016. Unlike licenses, which people must have to legally work in a field, certification is voluntary.
Of those participating in the census, 17 percent have at least one certification and another 14 percent seek certification in the next year. The census did not ask participants to identify the certification they held or were seeking.
Length of Time in the Profession
In general, technical communicators have long tenures in the profession. Only a bit over a quarter of the participants in the census (26 percent) have only been in the profession for a decade or less, with fewer than 3 percent joining in the past year. By contrast, another 29 percent of the participants have logged a quarter century or longer in the field. And about a sixth of technical communicators (17.4 percent) have worked 16 to 20 years. Figure 4 shows the length of time participants have spent in technical communication.
About Our Jobs
What types of jobs do technical communicators have? This section explores that issue by reporting on their employment situations (that is, whether technical communicators work internally or externally), the function to which internal technical communicators report, their primary job roles within those functions, and their tenures in their current jobs.
For the past several decades, technical communicators have had great interest in the service sector and its impact on employment in the field. The service sector refers to arrangements in which organizations hire third parties to prepare their content and includes contracting, outsourcing, and offshoring. People working in the service sector are said to work externally, while those working inside organizations are said to work internally.
The census suggests that the overwhelming majority of technical communicators (76 percent) work as employees of organizations whose primary business is something other than providing technical communication services (such as a software development firm, defense contractor, or educational institution).
By contrast, just 19 percent work in the service sector, identifying as either business owners, consultants, contractors, or regular employees of an organization whose primary business is providing technical communication-related services (such as a contract writing firm). The remaining 5 percent identify as academics.
Figure 5 shows the employment situations of technical communicators.
Department to Which Technical Communicators Report
Another management question that has generated much discussion is the department to which technical communicators report. The discussions have focused on the merits of working in research and development, marketing and sales, and other internal departments. The census results suggest that no single department dominates, although two figure prominently: information technology and information services (IT/IS) (21 percent) and research and development (19 percent). Only 6 percent work in the manufacturing department and 5 percent in the marketing and sales department.
Primary Job Role
The majority of the participants in the census (62 percent) identify their primary job as a writing role: 37 percent as writers and another 25 percent as writer/editors. The next largest group of participants identify their job role as management (14 percent). Although the field of technical communication likes to characterize itself as a big-tent that includes editors, illustrators, and UX specialists, professionals in these role represent just small percentages of those in the census (3.5 percent, 0.6 percent, and 0.8 percent respectively).
Figure 6 shows the primary job roles of technical communicators.
Tenure in Current Job
Although nearly three-quarters of technical communicators have been in the field for longer than 10 years, their tenures in their current jobs is much briefer: 85 percent of all technical communicators have 10 or fewer years in their current job. In fact, 55 percent have worked for five or fewer years in their current position. Figure 7 shows the tenure of technical communicators in their current jobs.
About the Organizations for Whom Technical Communicators Work
What types of organizations employ technical communicators? This section provides a portrait of them, including the industries in which technical communicators work, the regions of organizations employing technical communicators, and the sizes of those organizations.
Industries in Which Technical Communicators Work
On the one hand, a wide variety of industries employ technical communicators, but 39 percent work in just two industries—technology (24 percent) and IT services and solutions (15 percent)—and several industries each have fewer than 1 percent of the population of technical communicators, including construction (0.3 percent), entertainment (0.3 percent), hospitality (0.6 percent), private security solutions (0.3 percent), real estate and insurance (0.3 percent), residential and commercial services (0.5 percent), scientific equipment manufacturing (0.8 percent), and wholesale distribution (0.2 percent). Figure 8 shows the industries in which technical communicators work.
Regions of Organizations Employing Technical Communicators
The overwhelming majority of participants in the census work in the United States (80 percent). Within the United States, the two regions employing the largest number of technical communicators include the North Central region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) (18 percent) and the Southwest and Hawaii region (Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah) (17 percent). Another 10 percent of participants work in Canada. Figure 9 shows the geographic regions in which technical communicators work.
Sizes of Organizations Employing Technical Communicators
The largest percentage of technical communicators works for organizations employing 500 or fewer workers (39 percent). Another 28 percent work for medium sized organizations (501 to 5,000 workers), and 33 percent work for large organizations (5,001 and more workers). The two sizes of organizations employing the largest number of technical communicators is organizations with 1,001 to 5,000 workers (17 percent) and 25,001 and more workers (16 percent). Figure 10 shows the sizes of organizations employing technical communicators.
What Does This Mean?
This basic analysis of the characteristics of technical communicators and their jobs from the census suggests the following:
- About who technical communicators are: we tend to skew older, female, and white.
- About technical communicators’ backgrounds: we are well-educated, and even though technical communication is a popular field of study, the majority of us do not have degrees in the field. Furthermore, most of us entered the field as a second or third profession, rather than a first profession, but once we enter the field, many of us stay there. Although many of us hold a certification, more do not.
- About our jobs: we overwhelmingly work internally as captive employees of organizations whose primary business is something other than providing technical communication services (such as a software development firm, defense contractor, or education institution). The service sector (contracting, consulting, outsourcing) accounts for just under 20 percent of employment. The majority of us work in writing-related positions as writers or writer-editors or as managers. Although we remain in the field for decades, most technical communicators change jobs far more frequently.
- About the organizations in which we work: we work in a variety of industries, but the largest numbers of us work in the technology and IT services and solutions industries. Participants in the census overwhelmingly work within the United States, where over a third of the participants work in just two regions: North Central and Southwest and Hawaii. Technical communicators work in all size organizations, but we are most likely to work in medium-sized organizations (501 to 5,000 worker).
Does Lisa Simpson still characterize the essence of technical communicators? The census did not answer that question.
SAUL CARLINER (email@example.com) is a Professor of Educational Technology at Concordia University in Montreal, and a Fellow and a Past President of STC.
YUAN CHEN is a PhD student in Education at Concordia University in Montreal.