Viewpoint: Differences between public and private workforces

By Walter Baber

I wish to take vigorous exception to the attack on public employees launched by Dick Lyles in his March 31 column. But instead of using hateful rhetoric bereft of facts, as Mr. Lyles prefers to do, I wish to provide solid evidence to refute his suggestion that public employees are beneficiaries of a “caste system” that enriches them at the expense of both the taxpayers and the poor.

I rely for my response on a recent study of public and private sector compensation conducted by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data and accepted analytical methodology.

By way of background, public and private workforces differ in several important ways. For instance, jobs in the public sector require much more education on average than those in the private sector. In fact, employees in state and local government are twice as likely to have college or advanced degrees than their private sector counterparts. This is due, in significant part, to the public service reforms of the Progressive Era, which were designed to reduce cronyism and partisanship in public employment. Education was substituted for political influence, with the result that public hiring is today a model of impartiality.

More concretely, wages and salaries of state and local employees are lower than those for private sector workers with comparable determinants of income (e.g. education).  State employees typically earn salaries 11 percent below, and local workers 12 percent below, their private sector counterparts. And over the past 20 years, the earnings for public workers have declined relative to comparable private sector employees.

And when it comes to the benefits (e.g. pensions) which seem to enrage conservatives the most, these comprise a larger share of public sector employees’ total income than they do in the private sector. In effect, civil servants have bargained away higher salaries for deferred compensation.  This has made life easier for elected officials over the years to balance their budgets and citizens have enjoyed public services at below market rates. But now those same officials want to renege on their agreements by slashing public pensions and they are inflaming the passions of poorly informed taxpayers to gain support for their duplicity.

And yet, even taking the current levels of public pensions into account, state and local employees have lower total compensation packages than their private sector counterparts. On average, total compensation is 6.8 percent lower for state employees and 7.4 percent lower for local workers, compared with private sector employees.

Given all of these facts, I wish that people like Mr. Lyles would do some homework before they declare public workers to be the “upper crust of welfare.” Both he and your newspaper owe to the public that government employees serve a more honest and accurate depiction of reality. Presuming to speak on their behalf, I am a little tired of being told that everything would be just fine if only I lived in a packing crate under a highway overpass.

Baber, Ph.D., J.D., is a professor at California State University, Long Beach. He is director of the Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration and teaches public sector human resources management as well as courses on public policy. He resides in Rancho Bernardo.

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Posted by Steve Dreyer on Apr 6 2011. Filed under Letters to the Editor, Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

4 Comments for “Viewpoint: Differences between public and private workforces”

  1. Dennis Sims

    Cutting budgets creates efficiency and quote all the statistics that you like, all that I know is that when there is fear of losing a job you would be surprised how much more work gets done. You can walk into almost any government office and see the inefficiency that needs to be addressed. If regulations require to much work for the government employee, then management must look at these requirements and take a stand against all the duplicity that happens. The private sector would go out of business unless they take stands while governments approach is to increase staffing (ie costs to taxpayer). I would be more than happy to increase any government employees salary if I was able to see that his/her performance was saving me money in the long run.

  2. Dick Lyles

    Even though it is not my practice to respond to responses to my editorials, I think Mr. Baber’s comments are so far off base they deserve addressing. This is a perfect example of the kind of educated incompetence that permeates higher education. His article sounds authoritative, but is flawed from beginning to end.
    The main point of my article is that we shouldn’t cut services to needy recipients and fees to under-paid providers without also cutting either the salaries of the administrators or the number of administrators who now have a reduced workload. We can’t afford it and this protected class of state employees doesn’t deserve it. His response does nothing to refute this basic point.
    We all know how easy it is to make any point one wants with “data and accepted analytical methodology,” but Mr. Baber’s response and so-called arguments fail to address my point on any level. They are not even remotely related. On top of that the studies he cites were all conducted by entities predisposed to big government and protecting government employees’ salaries and pensions. The conclusions he presents and arguments he puts forth have nothing to do with my editorial.
    (see next post)

  3. Dick Lyles

    (continued from previous)
    After reviewing Mr. Baber’s weak presentation of unrelated facts I stand by my original premise, but would like to add one clarification. I did not include “all” government workers in my characterizations. In fact, I was careful to avoid doing so. Contrary to Mr. Baber’s assertion I delivered an honest and accurate depiction of reality which Mr. Baber did little to dispel.
    And speaking of hateful rhetoric … as a self-proclaimed academic, Mr. Baber should know better than to presume to speak on anyone’s behalf. I resent the fact he chooses to speak on mine. I don’t think anyone should live in a packing crate under an overpass and have not come close to implying anything of the sort. Writing such nonsense makes him an embarrassment to his profession.
    He has, however, done us the service of seeing the kind of nonsense he passes off as “truth” in his classroom. Now we can see firsthand one reason higher education is in trouble in this country.

  4. Ned

    Bravo Mr. Baber.
    Thanks for getting the facts out in a sea of TV and radio talkshow hatefests against the public sector, where pleasing their corporate owners is paramount.

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