No doubt about it, the U.S. economy is on an epic roll. At 3.7%, after falling for 96 straight months, unemployment in September hit its lowest point since 1969, when Richard Nixon was in the White House. With companies’ earnings strong and a lighter tax load (since the corporate tax rate was cut last December from 35% to 21%), you might think more employers would be about ready to start sharing the wealth and handing out bigger raises.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong. A stack of new surveys shows that companies plan to boost salaries and wages anywhere from 2.8% to 3.1% in 2019. That average of roughly 3% is about the same pay increase as this year, last year, and the decade before that.
“The last year employers provided significantly larger increases was 2008, at 3.8%,” notes a survey of 814 companies across a wide range of industries, from consultants Willis Towers Watson. To keep overhead both relatively low and tied to specific results, employers are instead relying on variable pay. “Discretionary bonuses, generally paid for special projects or one-time achievements,” the report notes, will go up a tiny bit next year, to an average of about 5.9% of base salary for exempt employees. Annual performance bonuses, though, will stay flat or shrink.
A 3% pay raise is barely enough to keep pace with the cost of living, and inflation-adjusted wages for the third quarter of this year actually fell 1.8% from the same period in 2017, according to a quarterly study from Payscale.com that tracks both wages and purchasing power. So, it’s not surprising that employees are starting to get mad. When staffing firm Robert Half conducted its annual poll of more than 2,800 workers in 28 U.S. markets for its 2019 salary guides, the researchers found that 46% believe they are underpaid.
If you happen to be one of them, Paul McDonald, Robert Half’s senior executive director, has four suggestions:
1. Do salary research
Research online at sites like Robert Half, Salary.com, PayScale.com, and Glassdoor, to study up on what your peers (same or similar skills and experience, in your geographic area, and your industry) are making.
2. Practice the conversation
“If you find your salary is coming up short, “before you go talk to your boss, practice the conversation, ideally with a mentor,” says McDonald. “You need to be ready to give evidence for your market value, and for what you have achieved and contributed in your current job.”
3. Don’t get angry
Be cool. “The biggest mistake we’ve seen people make is to realize they’re worth more and get all emotional about it,” McDonald observes. “If you go in angry, you’ll come across as arrogant.”
4. Don’t expect an instant answer
“Your boss may have to get more information, from other people in the company, before making a decision about a raise for you,” McDonald notes. “Be prepared to be a little bit patient.” You might also negotiate for what the Willis Towers Watson report calls a “discretionary bonus.”
Or, of course, you can always start job hunting. With the market for talent as tight as it is right now, recruiters say they’re seeing candidates asking for, and getting, an “open-market premium”—the pay hike you can expect just for moving—of 9% or 10%, or even higher for the skills most in demand.
Considering that’s at least triple the raise you’re likely to get by staying put, here’s something surprising: Relatively few people seem to be jumping ship, at least so far. A close look at Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that, when the current economic recovery began to pick up steam in 2010, unemployment was still at a whopping 9.4%. The “quits rate,” or percentage of employees leaving voluntarily, was just 1.5%, as people who had jobs hung on to them. Now look at this year’s third quarter. With the unemployment rate down so dramatically, you might logically expect quits to have soared—but no. The BLS’ latest data show it hovering around 2.2%, or not even a full percentage point more than when the economy was in the Dumpster.
Don’t let anybody tell you employee loyalty is dead.
Anne Fisher is a career expert and advice columnist who writes “Work It Out,” Fortune’s guide to working and living in the 21st century. Each week, she’ll answer your most challenging career questions. Have one? Ask her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.