Log in

Report to the Board of Trustees, February 2018: The Compensation Survey

Monday, February 12, 2018 4:45 PM | Sean Williams

the field faculty compensation survey

background and methods

As mentioned in the last NIA report, we spent part of 2017 continuing our efforts at data-gathering. Our hope was to build on the 2016 Lifestyle Survey to further improve our statistical picture of today’s NOLS instructor. In the pure spirit of data collection, and without a view to any change or new strategy at this point, we decided to brave the ever-fraught topic of compensation.

As we all learned in last June’s meeting, it is challenging for NOLS to gather data on the compensation levels offered at organizations that we compete with to attract instructors, for the simple reason that most organizations don’t want to share that information, presumably for reasons of competitiveness. The most recent analysis of the industry conducted by NOLS (presented last June) relied, for the “field instructor” category, on information from 11 other organizations, seven of which were Outward Bound schools. We hoped to complement this information by looking in another direction for data:  to NOLS instructors themselves.

Our intent was to build a statistical picture of the jobs that are actually attracting current NOLS instructors. To that end, we asked field instructors to fill out a 13 question survey in which they shared information about current or previous jobs they had held in the outdoor industry. We asked respondents to share information about as many jobs as they had held or been accepted for (we asked them not to include any they had only heard about, or not been able to get). As a result of this method, we could receive multiple responses from the same instructor, and in a few cases, we received multiple responses about the same organization. This provides a potential statistical advantage, in that our averages and medians better represent the actual influence of each competing organization on the “NOLS instructor job market”: the few organizations that are attractive enough to be used by multiple respondents clearly have a greater weight in pulling instructors away from NOLS, while others that only produced one respondent would appear to have a less than 1% effect on the market. We included questions about the individual’s current or most recent wage, the organization’s starting wage, the maximum possible field wage, the for- or non-profit status of the organization, and the currency that was used. We also asked respondents to compare the job in question with their work at NOLS in four terms: the level of technical skill required, the risk management responsibilities, the time spent with students or clients on a daily basis, and the breadth of past experience needed to get the job. Our hope with the last four questions was to learn not only how NOLS compares in terms of compensation, but whether competing jobs are more or less difficult than working as a NOLS field instructor.

The obvious advantages of our method are the number of data points (107 jobs), and the guarantee that, by going directly to instructors to gather data, we are comparing jobs that NOLS instructors actually get and accept. The obvious disadvantage is that we rely on the accurate memory, and honesty, of the respondents. Since we have 107 data points, any individual data point that is not accurate has only a minor statistical influence on the results as a whole.

profit status

We made an intentional choice to gather data on for-profit organizations, in addition to non-profits. A common perception among field instructors is that it is easy to make more money guiding, or working for a for-profit company, than teaching (usually for a non-profit like NOLS). Because for-profit organizations have a different economic model that NOLS, and sometimes lack the sense of social mission that NOLS has, it makes sense to say that they can’t be compared economically. They do, however, clearly affect the job market, since 57 out of 107 responses to our survey, over 50%, were from for-profits. By asking respondents about profit status, we were able to analyze the numbers both with and without the for-profits included. We were happy to be able to include them, in order to better understand the job market, and also happy to be able to exclude them from analysis, in order to compare NOLS with the non-profit world alone.

We expected to see a big difference here, with compensation levels much higher in the for-profit world. This was not the case. Average starting, current, and top wages were only 3.6%, 10.6%, and 8% higher in the for-profit than in the non-profit world. When for- and non-profits are combined, wages were 1.5%, 5.6%, and 4.6% higher than when for-profits were excluded. (The upper limit of pay levels is clearly higher in the for-profit world; our survey included nine responses with top pay levels over $400/day, all of which were from for-profits. This may partly explain the popular impression that for-profits pay much more, but this appears to be true only on the extreme upper end of the scale.) A more nuanced analysis, or more data, might be able to determine if the supposedly high wages available in the for-profit world do in fact affect specific populations of NOLS instructors (there could be substantial variation between skill types, for example, which our survey did not cover), but there appear to be enough low-paying for-profits to pull down the average.

Since the differences were so small, this report includes only data only for the combined list of for- and non-profits. If you wish to consider numbers that exclude the for-profit world, you can just subtract 1.5-4.6%.

nationality and currency

Compensation ranges in the outdoor industry vary substantially among the countries NOLS operates in, and exchange rates obviously affect comparison with compensation in US dollars. We received twelve Canadian responses, and one each from Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, and Sweden (as well as five with the currency unspecified, which we deleted). The Canadian data might present some anecdotal interest for the Canadian job market, while the other five, with only one response each, clearly have no statistical power in their respective markets. When these international responses are removed, US-only responses show compensation levels 0.7%, 2%, and 6% higher for starting, current, and top compensation levels.

Since currency, like profit status, had less affect than expected, and since 86% of responses were from the U.S., the analysis below is based simply on the combined totals.

comparing the nols wage

NOLS’ compensation for field instructors varies substantially by position, seniority, season, and course type. Pay is 25-30% higher for the Course Leader, and about 10% higher for everyone in the summer. There are possible bonuses of $5-$23 per day for various course types and positions in various seasons. For purposes of comparison, we used the following pay rates as typical for NOLS:

For Starting pay, we used the pay rate for an “Instructor” or “I” level instructor in the summer. This rate is $90/day. (Almost all instructors work one to three courses as an “I” before moving on to work as a Patrol Leader (PL), and most instructors work their first course in the summer. Off-season “I” level pay is only $85/day. The rare instructor who works his or her first course as a PL will earn $109/day in the summer.)

Current pay is more difficult to compare, since NOLS’ 12 seniority levels (up to 500+ field weeks) and the various seasonal and position bonuses and rates make it hard to determine how much the “average” instructor is being paid. From last year’s Lifestyle Survey, we know that the median response for seniority was 30-60 weeks in the field (known as Intermediate Level), so we used this level for comparison. Some instructors at this level will work as CLs some of the time, and the most common instructor team has one CL and two PLs. So for comparison purposes, we used a number one-third of the way between Intermediate PL pay and Intermediate CL pay.  As for the seasonal bonus, we split the difference between summer pay and off-season pay. All of this gives a rate of $115/day.

The top pay rate on the summer pay scale is $208/day. (Technically, an instructor with over 500 weeks in the field, working a few specific course types, could accumulate a number of bonuses and reach $260.50. Such a combination of bonuses is so rare as to be negligibly significant, and the vast majority of courses do not include these bonuses, making this number seem more hypothetical than realistic.) We can safely assume that such a senior instructor would CL most of the time, so we used the average of the Senior Staff Level 10 CL pay rate for summer and off-season, which is $203/day.  As we know from the Lifestyle Survey, only 9% of instructors have reached even 200 weeks in the field (Senior Staff Level 4), so such wages are far from most instructors’ likely career path.

the results

Enough explanation, here are the numbers. Figures are in US dollars per day.






For starting wages, the industry median is 45% above the NOLS wage, and the industry average is 57% above. For current wages (our statistical “average” wage at NOLS), median and average are 40% and 63% above, respectively. For top wages, NOLS is 1.5% above the median, and the average is 21.6% above NOLS.

Why is the top wage at NOLS slightly above the industry median, and closer to the industry average, while the current and starting wages are farther below? It could be because NOLS has been around for so long, and has retained a small number of instructors for decades. This has led us to establish higher pay levels, to account for the seniority of a relatively small number of individuals. Perhaps few competing organizations have instructors with over 500 field weeks, for whom they might choose to establish higher top wages. We have no way of knowing objectively if this is the case, and there could be some other explanation as well.

For the four questions about the difficulty of work at other organizations, respondents rated the job in question on a scale of 1-5, where “3” was “equal to NOLS”, “1” was “much less than NOLS”, and “5” was “much more than NOLS”. Here are the average scores for each question (keep in mind that NOLS’s score is, by definition, 3).

What level of technical skill is required, compared to NOLS work?:                             2.63

How demanding are the risk management responsibilities compared to NOLS?:        2.72

How much time and energy are you expected to devote to students/clients compared to at NOLS?                                 3.04

How extensive must your professional background be to get this job?                         2.6

It appears that, on average, slightly less technical skill, risk management responsibility, and professional background are required in the industry than at NOLS, and the devotion of time and energy to students/clients is about the same.

Since we only asked current NOLS instructors to respond to the survey, our responses do not include information from those who have moved on from NOLS. This may skew the “current wage” data set slightly down: our respondents are reporting their wages either when they last worked at the organization in question (if they no longer work there), or currently (if they still work there, combining that job with NOLS), but no one is reporting wages at jobs they have held since leaving NOLS – presumably for a job that would pay more. We also asked for the year at which the respondent last worked at the job in question. We threw out responses from more than 10 years ago, but did not adjust the other responses for inflation or changes in the industry. This also might skew the average and median down slightly.

At this point, that is all we know. As usual, I am eager for feedback on this survey and analysis, and especially for ideas about future NIA data-gathering efforts. I am looking forward to seeing you all in Santa Monica! Thanks for all you do for NOLS, and for your time and attention, both to myself and to past NIA representatives over the years.

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software