The path to reliable salary data sometimes is sometimes paved with frustration. That’s because the honest answer to a reasonable question—what should I be paid for this job?—is usually: "It depends."
Location, experience, skill set, industry, and other factors all impact someone’s actual compensation. For example, there’s rarely a single, agreed-upon salary for a particular job title or role.
All of the above applies to system administrators. It’s a common, long-established IT job that spans many industries, company sizes, and other variables. While sysadmins may share some common fundamentals, it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all position, and it’s all the truer as some sysadmin roles evolve to take on cloud, DevOps, and other responsibilities.
What salary can you expect to earn as a sysadmin? Yeah, it depends. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a clear picture of what sysadmin compensation looks like, including specific numbers. This is information worth having handy if you’re a sysadmin on the job market or seeking a promotion.
Let’s start with some good news from a compensation standpoint. Sysadmins—like other IT pros these days—are in demand.
"In today’s business environment, companies are innovating and moving faster than ever before, and they need systems that can keep up with the pace of their projects and communications, as well as help everything run smoothly," says Robert Sutton, district president for the recruiting firm Robert Half Technology. "That’s why systems administrators are among the IT professionals who can expect to see a growing salary over the next year or so."
It might seem like that’s true across the board in IT these days, but sysadmins are among the specific roles where demand is particularly robust. Robert Half’s 2019 Technology & IT Salary Guide includes systems administrators on a list of 13 "hard to staff" roles, alongside some particularly hot positions like DevOps engineers, cloud architects, cloud systems engineers, and security professionals. (Also of note: Network administrators and help desk/desktop support professionals make the hard-to-staff list, too.)
Generally speaking, that fact means that qualified sysadmins have negotiating leverage right now. Employers need to make their offers as attractive as possible to compete for talent, Sutton notes.
A useful characteristic of Robert Half’s salary guide is that it breaks out the U.S. national average salaries by percentiles. The firm connects these percentiles to things like the individual’s experience and skill set, employer characteristics, and local job market trends. Here’s how the salary numbers for sysadmins shake out in the report:
- 25th percentile: $68,000
Robert Half’s salary guide describes this percentile as appropriate for "candidates who are new to the role and still developing their skills. The role may be in a market with low competition for talent or in a smaller, less complex organization."
- 50th percentile: $81,500
"Expect average experience and the necessary skills to get the job done," Robert Half says of this level. "The role will likely be of average complexity or in a market where the competition for talent is moderate."
- 75th percentile: $97,750
Now we’re getting into the upper reaches of sysadmin compensation, with expectations of your abilities rising accordingly. "Higher-end starting salaries require a strong skill set and more experience than is typical," the report says. "Candidates may have specialized certifications. The role may be fairly complex or in a market where the competition for talent is high."
- 100th percentile: $115,750
"A significantly high level of relevant experience and expertise, including specialized certifications, can command a starting salary in the highest percentile," Robert Half says. "The role may be very complex or in a market where the competition for talent is extremely high."
If you treat the 50th percentile as a norm—average in the sense of being typical, rather than a perfectly precise mathematical average, or invoking the negative connotations of the word "average"—this assumption bears out in other salary data available online.
Jobs site Indeed lists an average annual U.S. salary for system administrators of $82,527. That’s based on "9,019 salaries submitted anonymously to Indeed by Systems Administrator employees, users, and collected from past and present job advertisements on Indeed in the past 36 months." Another interesting point here: Indeed says that the "typical tenure" of a sysadmin is between one and three years, based on the same data.
Jobs site Dice, meanwhile, lists an average salary of $82,264 in its 2019 Tech Salary Report. That puts it at #20 in the report’s rankings of average salaries for common tech roles, roughly on par with web developer/programmer jobs.
Unless you’re just starting out in your sysadmin career, or in a market where hiring isn’t particularly robust, the low 80K range appears to be a current norm for sysadmins. Again, there are lots of specific factors that play a role in an actual offer or salary review, but this appears to be a reasonable baseline.
As you build particular expertise, it can pay off. ZipRecruiter pegs the average salary for a senior system administrator at $100,640, for example. The site also lets you plug in particular ZIP codes to see how the numbers change.
Sutton from Robert Half says his firm is seeing a growing interest among employers for the higher-level sysadmin sophistication that corresponds with those loftier salary figures.
"We’re seeing increased demand from employers for advanced skills and experience in this role," Sutton says.
While "advanced skills and experience" could be defined in all manner of ways, building cloud computing acumen is currently one of the best ways to climb that mountain. There are multiple pathways to doing so, but certifications could be useful. While IT certifications are sometimes a subject of heated debate, popular cloud certifications can boost pay. Previous research from Foote Partners, for example, linked certifications to an average 7.6% increase in compensation. Certifications aside, the sysadmin role is one where continuous professional development likely (and literally) pays off over time.
"With the currently low unemployment rate in the tech industry, companies often need to offer competitive salaries to bring these [more advanced] professionals on board," Sutton says.