What makes a wage?

The big cubicle

“Everything foreign ranks first,” is an old Lebanese proverb that seems befitting of the salary scales on offer in the country. In any conversation with a recruitment agent, human resources consultant, or even aspiring executive, the word ‘multinational’, or simply ‘ajnabiyeh’ — Arabic for “foreign” — will come up more often than not when attempting to identify the most lucrative job opportunities. 

While human resource consultancy group Mercer forecasts a 7 percent wage increase for Lebanon’s ‘white-collar’ employees, managers and executives in 2012, most corporations remain tight-lipped about their current or future salary packages.  

Yet, one need not tread water when the opportunity for a better salary exists out in the murky swamps of Lebanon’s job market. Recruitment agency representatives are able to give an idea of the pay structures according to, and within certain sectors, as well as the disparity between salaries on offer for executives and those at the bottom of the food chain.

The salary scale rundown

The structure of remuneration for Lebanon’s top-dog chief executive officers varies widely. While surveys conducted by Bayt, the online employment forum, show that CEOs in Lebanon receive, on average, $6,450 as a monthly salary, some CEOs get to take home upwards of $15,000 a month, according to Rami Labaki, the managing director of Bayt in Lebanon. 

Just one rung down the ladder, monthly rates offered to chief financial officers (CFOs) also diverge widely. It is common to find two CFOs with the same qualifications and experience yet one earns $7,000 and the other $20,000 per month, according to Tina Kfoury, managing director of the executive search firm Business Lobby. To a degree this variance in the range of pay can be attributed to the particular specialization of the individual, where the level of discrepancy increases as one moves up the salary ladder; however, for Kfoury, the most significant determining factor in the level of pay is whether the company is local or multinational, with global players more willing and able to fork out to keep the talent they want. 

Malek Zebib, general manager at management consultants KPMG Lebanon and head of learning and development at KPMG Saudi Arabia, also notes that multinational companies across different industries have better salary packages to offer for their staff. He explains that these packages have, to a certain extent, become more available in Lebanon as some multinational offices made the move from Dubai to Beirut last year. Kfoury, though, would say this gap between multinational and local firms is beginning to narrow in some sectors of the job market, and that local companies conducting regional operations, for instance, are also starting to offer salaries consummate with those of their regional branches as local staff begin to expect wage parity. Another differentiating factor for executive pay is international experience, a rare quality in Lebanon, she contends.

Something about sectors

Aside from what type of firm is hiring, which sector the company operates in makes the difference between making a living wage or a wager on living. Banking and finance is still ranked as the industry that offers both the best salary packages and non-monetary benefits, according to surveys conducted by Bayt last November. 

Renalda Hayek, assistant general manager and head of group human resources division at Byblos Bank, says in the past three years Lebanese banks in general have managed to narrow the gap relative to salaries by Gulf banks.   

“While the difference in pay [in 2008] was in some cases 70 percent, now it’s around 20 to 30 percent,” she says, without disclosing specific figures. In sectors other than banking,  Business Lobby’s Kfoury notes that salaries offered to engineers usually tend to be higher, especially at the entry level. 

“Engineers…start with a basic salary ranging from $900 to $1,000, but receive a salary increase quite early, after three or six months, when their salaries reach $1,200 to $1,500,” says Kfoury, noting that telecommunication engineers are the best paid. “A company trying to hire a telecommunication engineer with a background in 3G technology cannot… expect to pay him the same salary as any other engineer,” she adds, noting that telecommunication engineers with an expertise in 3G technology with five years of working experience are usually paid $2,500 to $3,000, while technical directors with the same specialty are paid between $12,000 and $15,000 a month. 

The difference in salary according to expertise is of particular importance in the programming and web development field. Figures posted on the online salary forum Salary Explorer, which compiles anonymous entries from users 

in an effort to increase salary transparency, show that those specializing in programming environments such as Visual Basic NET make as little as LL1,000,000 [$663] per month on average, while others specializing in Java, for instance, make an average of  LL1, 608,643 [$1,067].

“Now there’s usually more demand for Java and C# (C sharp) programmers or developers specializing in web-based environments such as PHP,” says Nabih Barakat, senior software engineer at Byblos Microsystems.   

Starting off

But while the correlation between salaries, expertise, or whether a firm is local or multinational seems easy to establish for salary watchers, consensus is lacking when it comes to determining what is ‘acceptable’ as a starting salary for a fresh university graduate. 

Kfoury claims that fresh graduates in domains other than engineering will not accept anything below $700 as a starting salary. 

“We pay LL800,000 [$533] as a starting salary for a fresh graduate, because we think this is the minimum wage to live decently,” says Byblos’ Hayek. “We do our own research and do not need to be told this,” she added, in reference to the new salary scale set by the cabinet.  

While making enough money to live is a fairly fundamental requirement, many eager new entrants to the job market are hungry for experience and will accept lower wages as part of ‘paying their dues’, knowing that the on-the-job seasoning they receive will make them a more valuable commodity down the road. 

Similarly, at the other end of the job market, keeping experienced and talented staff often has to do with more than just how much money an individual is paid.  

“The most important element in retention is career growth, then comes working environment, followed by salary,” says Hayek. “Institutions that cannot offer good career development or a good working environment will have to pay very high [salaries] in order to retain executives.”