Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Federal Pay and “The Real World”

Last month, USA Today reported that the average Federal government worker is paid more than his counterpart in the private sector. To be exact, not only is he paid over ten percent more, but his benefits package is worth about four times that of "the real world."

A chart was provided for comparison was provided for over forty professions. Of interest to me was the figures for a graphic designer. The average pay for my profession in the Feds is $70,820, whereas in the private sector it would be $46,565. This amounts to a difference of $24,255, or just over fifty percent.

I didn't need to read the article to know that the figure was true. My profession tends to pay slave wages anyway, especially for the first few years. The result is that young designers move around a lot, often waiting years to settle down, start their own studios, and hire young graduates that they end up exploiting themselves.

But the information provided in the article doesn't give the whole picture.

Professionals in senior executive positions who are invited by the President to serve as political appointees are not always career politicians. Many are experts in their chosen fields, and have to take a considerable pay cut to work for the government. They must also complete detailed financial disclosures, and certain investments and other financial interests must be placed in a blind trust during their tenure. Most go through with this out of a genuine desire for public service. Some decide the vetting process is too complicated, and eventually forgo the opportunity.

Even the USA Today chart has a few surprises. Attorneys, computer specialists, medical professionals, and even editors, are among the professions where Federal pay is actually lower than in the private sector. (Most computer guys in the government today are not actually Federal employees, but are contractors, often working on location alongside Federal employees.)

Another factor to consider, is when an individual joined the Federal government. Those who joined before 1984 were part of the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS), which does not pay into Social Security, but which provides a generous annuity, after thirty years of tenure and age 55. Those who joined from 1984 onward, or who made a switch from the "old plan" to the "new plan" during the late 1980s (for reasons that to this day escape me), are under the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS), which by itself pays a lower annuity, and assumes participation in Social Security. FERS also pays a lower annuity, as it presumes voluntary participation in a Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).

People complain about government bureaucrats being lazy and incompetent, and that they couldn't cut it in the private sector. In many cases, I would beg to differ, unless you don't want to count much of the American auto industry, certain foreign-based automakers experiencing product recalls, larger financial institutions making bad loans -- shall I go on? There is also a perception that the Federal government is getting bigger. In terms of full-time employees, the later 20th century saw an overall drop in Federal employees, and a dramatic increase in state and local government workers. Only in recent years has that trend reversed itself. And even so, much of what appears to be new personnel acquisitions at the Federal level, are in fact contract workers from private companies, which do not take an oath to protect the public trust, and are thus not accountable to you, the taxpayer.

On the other hand, it does tend to be a more secure career than in the private sector, less subject to the ups and downs of the economy. Even as much of the country is hurting, the Washington metropolitan area is doing reasonably well (though not really great). Very few people ever get rich working for the Federal government, although they do tend to get comfortable.

Obviously, I'm not complaining. And the vast majority of Federal workers are every bit as conscientious as are private sector workers. In the next several years, thousands of "baby boomers" are expected to retire, and thousands of new positions are expected to open on the Federal payroll. If you'd like a shot at one of them, go to USAjobs.com.

You could do worse.


Paul Zummo said...

I was actually thinking of writing on this very subject. This is one area of complaint where I think a lot of conservatives are misguided. Sure the average federal employee makes more than the average American, but the average federal employee is also more highly educated. There isn't really a "working class" among federal employees - they all tend to be professionals with at least a couple of years with graduate experience. The real comparison is with similar people in the private sector, and you say the comparative pay actually tends to be higher in the private sector for many comparative jobs.

You hit upon the real nice things about working for the feds (and government in general): job security and benefits. Also, perhaps present company excluded, you don't tend to have to work much beyond the 40 hour per week norm for the government whereas there is more pressure to do so in the private sector. And public sector employees tend to get much more paid vacation. All in all, though, you don't normally turn to public sector work to strike it rich. But all that being said, I can understand how people get frustrated and perhaps agitated when they hear about average government employee salaries.

Dad29 said...

Paul, if you're trying to tell us that Education is relevant to most jobs (private OR public), you're wrong.