3 January 2013 Jay Shepherd

How to calculate your real hourly rate

question mark clockDo you know what your time is worth?

If you’re a professional and you have an hourly rate, you’re probably used to measuring your time in tenth-of-an-hour increments. You keep track of the work you do on timesheets, and then you multiply those totals by your hourly rate. That calculation gives you a value of the work that you performed for your client.

Or does it?

Let’s say that you’re a CPA with five years of professional experience. Let’s further say that you spend an hour working on the audit of a client. Your rate is, say, $120 an hour. By that calculation, at least in theory, the work you performed during that hour was worth $120. And that’s the amount that the client will be charged.

But an hour is an hour. (Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is of course beyond the scope of this post.) So what if I spend the hour doing audit work for that client, instead of you? Isn’t it also worth $120?

“No, you idiot,” you say. “You’re not even an accountant.”

That’s true, I reply. But what if I send away for my very own CPA license from an ad in the back of a magazine? Then suddenly I’m an accountant, too. Now is my hour of work on this client’s audit worth $120?

“Of course not,” you scoff. (I get a lot of scoffing.) “It’s not about the license, you maroon. It’s about the knowledge I accumulated over my five years of working.”

Bingo! You just figured the whole thing out. It isn’t the hour of work that creates the value. It’s the knowledge that you’ve accumulated that creates it. You and I could spend an identical amount of time working on that audit, but because I don’t have any knowledge beyond “debits on the left and credits on the right,” the accounting work I do would be essentially worthless. So the single hour on the timesheet does nothing to measure the value that you and I create with our hour.

This is what Peter Drucker meant when he coined the phrase knowledge worker. The value created by a knowledge worker — an accountant, a lawyer, a designer, a consultant, an architect, or an advertising professional — derives from the knowledge that he or she is transferring or applying.

And where does this knowledge come from? It primarily comes from two places: education and experience. So if you’re going to use the amount of time spent to measure the value you create, then you had better account for all the time spent. (You realize, of course, that I don’t advocate trying to measure the value you create by marking the passage of time. I’m just making the point that if you choose that particular metric, you’d better make sure that you’re measuring everything.)

So let’s now try to figure out what your real hourly rate is. First we’ll look at your education. If you grew up in the United States, you were most likely required to go to school from first grade through twelfth grade, plus kindergarten. Most professionals also attended college, so you need to count those hours. Depending on the profession, you probably also attended some graduate school. During all these years of education, you amassed much of the knowledge that you now transfer to your client in your professional life. So you need to add up all those hours.

(Yes, I appreciate that some of those hours are apt to be more valuable then others. You probably learned more things in your second year of law school than you did in kindergarten. Or did you? I don’t remember much from my second year of law school, but I still know what a silent e does. But based on your current timesheet usage anyway, hours are hours. You know that some of the hours you spend working are more valuable than others. You just figure that it all evens out in the end. Using that same assumption, we can measure your education hours as a single total.)

Once you’ve added up your time spent being educated, we need to turn to your professional experience. Obviously, an accountant who has been practicing twenty years knows a heck of a lot more than an accountant who’s only been practicing for one year. So we add up the hours you’ve spent working, too.

So to calculate your Actual Hourly Amount, we need to add your total education hours plus your total professional-history hours plus the hour that you’re doing the actual work for the client. Then we take your hourly billing rate and divide it by that sum. That gives you your Actual Hourly Amount.

You can use this handy calculator to calculate your figure. Just replace the numbers with your own. The grade-school and high-school hours are built in. (If you are reading this post in an email or an RSS reader and don’t see the calculator after this paragraph, click here to go to the post on jayshep.com.)

Surprised? Now that you include all the time that you spent being able to do the work for that client, you suddenly realize that you’re only earning pennies an hour. And I don’t care how experienced you are or how high your billing rate is. Using this calculator, top lawyer David Boies, who bills at $1,220 an hour, only earns one penny for each of those hours when you account for all his knowledge-gathering time spent (education plus 46 years of practice). (I find it ironic that I earned 1.1 pennies an hour, based on 17 years experience and a phantom rate of $600 an hour. I was a very good lawyer, but I was no David Boies.)

Try the calculator with other rates or different levels of professional experience. See what you can look forward to later in your career. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

The point of calculating your Actual Hourly Amount is to show you once and for all that timekeeping is a ridiculous way to measure the value of a professional’s work. I hope that your AHA moment will lead you to realize that the value of the knowledge you sell is based on what it’s worth to your clients when you use that knowledge to solve their problems.

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