Get your big paycheck back

By Anne Fisher, contributor

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I was laid off about a year and a half ago from a fairly senior (division vice president) position at a media company. Just to make ends meet, as well as to avoid having any blank time periods on my resume, I've been working on a few projects here and there. It's been interesting, but far less lucrative than my old job.

Now an employer is considering hiring me for a position similar in rank and responsibilities to the job I lost in 2008. One of the questions they asked, which I answered honestly, was how much I earned in 2009. But I don't want my compensation in the new job to be based in any way on that relatively low figure. Can I get back to my former level of pay, or at least somewhere near it? What should I say to the people interviewing me? -- Undervalued

Dear Undervalued: You've chosen an interesting moment to ask.

"Compensation in general is in a state of flux right now," observes Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director at pay-and-benefits consulting giant Towers Watson. "Companies are still cautious about adding overhead. Yet at the same time, they are acutely aware that they need the right talent in place as the recovery picks up steam, so they have to pay competitively."

It's standard practice for employers to ask what you currently earn, but that information "is just one data point," says Jesuthasan. Two other big considerations: how your skills, experience, and pay requirements stack up against those of other candidates, and what salary and perks the company has decided it can afford. "Whatever offer they may make you is probably going to be based much more on those two factors than on what you are earning now," he says.

On the first factor, some new research suggests that your competition has slashed its expectations. In fact, 41% of job hunters are willing to accept an offer that pays between 10% and 30% less than they were making before, and another 14% would accept a pay cut even greater than 30%, according to a recent survey by career site of 2,315 adults across the U.S.

Talkback: Has your paycheck sunk since the recession? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

On the second factor, well, it's tough to predict what your prospective employer will consider affordable. But keep in mind the "explosion in the use of temporary and contract employees, far more than in any previous recession," says Jesuthasan. That includes contract executives. Because those jobs come without benefits or perks, the cost to employers of adding these positions is relatively low.

Companies added 40,000 temporary and contract employees in March, in fact, 15% more than a year earlier, bringing the total since last September to 313,000. Only the federal government, which last month took on 48,000 new employees (many of them census jobs) is creating more jobs than the temporary sector, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Unfortunately for you, all of that, plus companies' qualms about how robust the recovery will be, is putting downward pressure on pay. So be warned: It may take a while to get back to the level of compensation that you had reached before the downturn hit.

Still, it won't necessarily count against you that your pay declined sharply over the past year and a half. Employers now are more understanding about dips in pay than they have been in the past, says Tony McKinnon, president of executive recruiters MRINetwork.

"Don't hesitate to explain your situation honestly," McKinnon advises. "Hiring managers tend to have a good sense of what is happening in their industry and, following a recession, stories of people who took a 'survival job' just to pay the bills are very common."

Do your homework, if you haven't already, McKinnon recommends. Find out -- from job boards, industry association surveys, headhunters you know, and any other credible source you can find -- what pay range now prevails for the position you're considering. Once you have a realistic sense of what the current market will bear, stay flexible. A big chunk of your new pay may come in the form of performance bonuses, for example, but you might be able to command a higher base salary in a year or two.

Also, when talking to interviewers, don't hesitate to describe the projects you've been working on, and what they may have taught you that will be useful in the new job. What you want to convey, McKinnon says, is that you're more than ready to get back in the game: "Explain, 'I've been making ends meet and picking up some new skills, but I haven't lost any of my career aspirations.' "

Talkback:Have you had to take a "survival job" just to pay the bills? Have you managed to get a raise? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page