How Learning Excel Can Increase Your Salary 4X Over Your Career

Excel punches above its weight in value-add, to both your salary and the performance of your organisation


In the crowded job market, you need to stand out to secure a decent role. Once in a role you equally need to stand out if you want to speed up career progression and strengthen your position in a  salary negotiation. In both cases, improving your Excel skills could be a simple yet effective solution.


We spend a lot of our lives in Excel

One study estimates that 81% of businesses globally use Excel. A survey of several hundred knowledge workers we ran suggests we spend more than 10% of our working lives spreadsheeting and for those working in research and development or finance, it’s more like 30% or 2.5 hours a day, almost as much time as we spend on the toilet and more than exercising. What if you optimised your Excel performance? What impact would that have over a year – an entire career?


Consider Excel shortcuts. One study suggest that shortcuts can shave a massive 80% off the time it takes to complete a task. And time savings are of course not limited to shortcuts. Those that know their way around Excel will know to go for that SUMIF or COUNTA or PivotTable sooner than those that don’t. Even if you could just be twice as quick, that’s a saving of 15 minutes a day, which over the ~260 working days in a year adds up to 65 hours. Over a career that’s thousands of hours.


But this is much bigger than that

The world’s 230m knowledge workers need Excel. The economies of developed countries are mostly knowledge economies, with a stable regime, high level of education, good information infrastructure and a system which supports innovation. As you might expect, the countries with the highest Knowledge Economy Indices include the US and Australia or are from Northern and Western Europe. In these economies growth is largely driven by the quantity, quality and accessibility of information and data, and the decisions we base on them. Spreadsheeting is the chosen tool of the modern knowledge worker to make those decisions each and every day.


Enhanced Excel capability is not merely about greater employability and saving time. Without the capability, you don’t do that particular higher-value work at all. You don’t know how to split your data a certain way and so you don’t work out that apples are costing you way more than pears. You don’t know how to check the data and so you never find out that you didn’t account for the cost of ice in last year’s figures, so performance was actually a lot worse than you thought. You don’t know how to squeeze the human error out of data entry, so you can’t understand why your numbers don’t add up, so it’s only once a year that they do, after you’ve paid your accountant to fix it all…again.


For knowledge workers, Excel is a multiplier

Beyond speed, the much bigger, almost-impossible-to-calculate impact of poor or mediocre spreadsheet skills lies in the valuable insights which we don’t think to try and bring out. It’s the problem of the unknown unknowns.


Used well, it supports everything else we do, from emailing, to meetings to finding information (collectively 61% of our working lives) to more specific tasks.



Its reassuring effect therefore enables career development, albeit it in the background, without fanfare. No wonder that high performers at leading professional services firms tend to have outstanding Excel skills, or that 1bn people use it. Excel courses are still amongst the most popular in the world, and a quarter of a million people viewed our Excel infographic last month alone.


Excel can impact your annual salary growth

Can we try to estimate the size of this multiplicative value-add to a career, attributable to Excel? We can try. We’ll make and state our assumptions along the way. Let’s take a career which starts at $30k and increases at a rate of 2% per year over 40 years. That’s the grey line below. It ends on $64,942 with cumulative earnings over the period of $1.8m.



Now imagine a career which starts off the same but which is continually enhanced by improved Excel skills – the blue line in the chart. Let’s assume a worker spends 6% of their working life spreadsheeting, that 2% of this can be saved and that the financial value of this saving is paid forward into the next year’s earnings: bonuses, pay rises, promotions, new job, etc. Of course, in reality, life is rarely so fair; often there’s little or no recognition, but occasionally larger rewards come. This compounds over time, ending on a salary of $138k and accumulating $2.8m over the 40-year period.


Now let’s consider the impact of improved work quality in this Excel-enhanced career – the green line on the chart. We assume here that our subject does their job 3% better and, like with the time saving, this is paid forward into the following years’ remuneration. This gives a final salary of $249k and cumulative earnings of $4.4m.


Can you afford not to know Excel better?


Here’s a downloadable Excel model to play around with – try entering your salary and seeing how Excel could impact it over time.