Saturday, March 13, 2010

Public Money, Private Money

I've seen the issue of private sector and public sector jobs come up several times in the past week -- in the Lowell Sun article that listed the number of city employees who clear the 100k marker (plus related commentary), in a news clip I caught about how far public sector salaries have eclipsed private sector ones (with some valid rebuttals about how it's not always an apples-to-apples comparison), and Thursday night at the Greater Lowell Tea Party meeting.

Speaking of which, there was nary a hateful word or idea expressed Thursday night. In fact, the only personal attack made that night was what you might call a "red-on-red" when Mihos came off the top rope to criticize Baker's management of Harvard Pilgrim, involvement with the Big Dig, and involvement with the Patrick transition team.

What did occur, however, were a lot of well-placed rants against government spending, and the debt burden we're placing on ourselves, our kids, our grandkids, and so on. There was one speech that crossed the line (the term "Us vs. Them" was used to refer to public sector employees vs. private sector employees), but for the most part, the speakers were on to something.

I know pensions get wrongly caricatured sometimes, because many are funded in large part by the workers themselves.

I know there are public sector employees who perform risky duty (police, fire, military, ATF, etc.) and there are those who perform noble duty (i.e. teaching a kid how to read).

There are also good reasons why you can't directly compare public salaries to private ones (education levels, longevity of employees, full- vs. part-time work, etc.)

All that having been said, I will say that spending five years in the active duty military gave me plenty enough exposure to the way government works to know this -- civilian public sector employment won't make you wildly rich, but it will provide you with a VERY comfortable lifestyle without requiring you to work for a bottom line or work more than a mandated number of hours per week.

I've seen way too many people coasting along, working not a minute more than their 40 (or 37.5 if it's State) hours per week. They'll expend more energy finding ways NOT to have to do work than to really take ownership and/or get involved in their official duties. By the time they're senior enough, they're making very high-five or low-six figure salaries. I know that's not enough to even afford to live an upper-middle class life in a tony suburb, but in today's economy that's more than a lot of people have.

Now, I'm not saying people don't make more on the private side (just ask my buddy, the fifth year associate at Wilmer Hale) but all I can say for sure is that there are PLENTY in the public sector who have it very, very, good, when you factor in things like job stress, work hours, vacations, sick pay, etc.

I'm not qualified to talk about how the private sector wastes money (I'm sure it does, but I just haven't slept on that side of the barn) but as the old song says, "I know what I know if you know what I mean." If you've worked in or around government, you do.

The second point I want to make is that recently noticed by a 29 year-old job seeker with five years' managerial experience but no technical skill or MBA -- All the best opportunities were in the public sector. Unless I was barking up the wrong trees (and I'm willing to admit I might've been) it just seemed like the stuff I was seriously looking at in the public sector was paying on average, $30k more per year than the stuff I was seeing on the corporate side. At the margins I'm talking about, that 30k is the difference between ekeing it out month to month or being able to actually buy new clothes, go to friends' weddings, and maybe even put a little bit away each month.

The old paradigm was that if you worked in the public sector, you were trading off a nicer income for the job security, benefits, and sense of satisfaction in working for society and the greater good.

At least through one person's eyes that paradigm has been flipped on its head.

That's not to say there aren't great people in the public sector who work their tails off. And that's not to say I don't take pride in my job -- believe me, I do, and I know the people around me at the Guard do, too.

But when you hear statistics about how private sector wages have freezed up, but the public sector pay increases keep galloping along, or about how the Commonwealth's population stays static while the size of its public payroll increases over time, you *should* be a little bit worried.

It can't go on like this forever.


tim said...

I find it interesting when things like this come up - either with salaries or vacation time - people's response is always 'they make too much money' or 'they don't deserve 5 weeks, all i get is 2'. My thought is always 'damn, I deserve 5 weeks too, how do I get that?'

I'm sure whoever they work for appreciate that attitude.

Progressive Veterans said...

You've stumbled upon the core of the US hatred towards Europe. They actually allow workers the time to enjoy life.

Vacation time drives our corporate fuedal masters crazy. Gawd, they hate paying us, just so we can unwind.

Private sector workers have been brainwashed.
Jack Mitchell

The New Englander said...

Exactly. And that's why whenever a person in high school, college, or just starting their career asks about jobs, I try to make sure they know how great things can be on the public sector side.

And yes, the vacation time, the pension, and of course, the limited weekly work hours (not to be underestimated if we're talking quality-of-life) draw people over to the gov't side.

And I would be a huge hypocrite if I said that from the point of view of any individual worker there was anything wrong with it...there isn''s rational to go where the getting is good, or at least better..