The Downsizing of the American Butler

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Five years ago, butler Paul Pearson could browse the job listings for butlers and have plenty of choices.

“You could really pick the job you wanted and often negotiate the terms,” said Pearson, a veteran British butler who worked for the Queen of England and Brooke Astor. “Now it’s totally different. For every position there are 10 or 20 people applying. And forget about negotiating anything. People take what they can get.”

Pearson likes his current job as household manager (the new term for butler) in a mansion in the Northeast. But he keeps close tabs on the butler economy – and what he sees would make Jeeves weep in his silver tray.

Butler's salaries are down between five to 20 percent in many markets in the United States compared to five years ago, according to placement agencies. Applicants far outnumber jobs. And while high-quality, experienced help can still find work, overall demand for butlers remains well below its peak during the butler boom of 2005 to 2007.

Typical salaries range from $40,000 or $50,000 to more than $200,000 for experienced butlers in big cities. Estate managers, who manage multiple homes, can make even more. But those salaries are also down from 2006.

“The very wealthy still have money and they still need staff,” said Steven Laitmon of The Calendar Group, which places butlers and household staff. “But they’re more cost conscious. They want to do more with less when it comes to staffing.” (Read more: Did the 'Lost' Middle Class Become Rich?)

Many butlers are being asked to do jobs they would have never considered before the recession. Aside from handling the standard duties of a butler – managing staff, running the home, coordinating family schedules – butlers are sometimes being asked to cook, clean, watch the kids and do yard work. Some are even being asked to clean toilets, Laitmon said.

Jeeves, in other words, is being downgraded to a jack-of-all-trades, sometimes doing the work of the chef, the housekeeper, the footmen and sometimes the chauffer and nanny. All of these duties are testing the limits of today’s butlers, who say they can’t provide expert butler service if they’re also trying to mind the kids and the roast beef.

“You can’t provide the highest levels of service when you’re trying to shop for fresh organic vegetables at multiple markets during they day while scrubbing the toilets, waiting for the cable guy, cooking the food and then plating a beautiful dinner,” Laitmon said. “They are all different skills.” (Read more: How Household Staff Can Put You at Risk)

Werner Leutert, principal of the Home Staffing Network International, which helps place butlers and staff, said that many of today’s new wealthy don’t have experience with household staff, since they didn’t grow up wealthy. So they often have unrealistic expectations for what a butler can do.

“Years ago, many of the employers came from families with staffs, so they were more experienced with the roles of butlers and staff,” Leutert said. “Employers today, the newer wealthy, don’t want all these people in their house. They want someone who’s fantastic who can do it all. That’s not always possible.”

Pearson, who started working in Buckingham Palace in the late 1970s before transferring to New York, said that many butlers know they can’t do so many jobs well. But they often take the positions since they need work.

“Wealthy employers today know they can find someone to do everything at whatever price they want,” he said. “But I still believe you get what you pay for.”

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
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