Government and Private-Sector Average Wages

by Erik Knoder

April 2, 2020

It takes less than 30 seconds on the Oregon Employment Department’s website for labor market information, www.QualityInfo.org, to see that published wages for government workers are different, and usually higher, than was among private-sector workers. A quick glance at employment and wages by industry data under the Economic Data tab will show that Oregon’s private-sector workers made an annual average wage of $52,077 in 2018 versus $78,151 for federal workers, $64,671 for state workers, and $55,230 for local government workers.
Different industries pay different wages. Manufacturing and finance are well known as high-paying industries; leisure and hospitality is often criticized for paying low wages. Although there are some similarities in industry wages across ownerships, there are many differences. The natural resources and mining industry pays much higher wages under federal ownership than private. This industry is the U.S. Forest Service in federal ownership, and it is mostly farming, logging, and their support industries in private ownership. Trade, transportation, and utilities employment is dominated by the lower-paying retail trade industry in the private sector versus the higher-paying transportation industry (U.S. Postal Service) in federal ownership and in local government (TriMet, Lane Transit District).

This trend of higher pay in the public sector is reversed in a couple industries. The information industry in the private sector (software publishers, telecommunications) pays much higher wages than the information industry in local government (Fern Ridge Public Library, among others). Private-sector finance also pays a higher average wage than finance does to state or local government workers. The state finance sector is mostly portfolio management done by PERS, which pays on average less than half the private-sector wage in portfolio management. Local government finance is primarily SAIF, an insurance provider.

Before you either celebrate fair wages or start throwing tea in Portland harbor in protest, let’s look at some of the reasons wages are different in the public and private sectors. Because aside from wages, the public and private sectors also have different industrial and occupational mixes, different institutional constraints, and different hours of work. One quick note, this is not an analysis of public and private-sector total compensation that compares comparable work. It is simply a look behind some of the average wages that we regularly publish.

Different Industries

The principal reason that public agencies have different average wages from private businesses is that they engage in different operations and often employ workers with different skills. Although there can be considerable overlap between the types of enterprises run by governments and private businesses, the emphasis, or number employees, is different. For example, there are government manufacturing and financial operations in Oregon, just not very large ones. And although both public and private schools exist, there are many more workers in public education than private education.

The first table shows employment by major industry and ownership. Ownership is either private, federal, state, or local government. Nonprofit organizations are typically in the private sector.
Indian tribal businesses and most public schools, including public universities, are in local government. The roughly 17,000 home care workers in Oregon were officially counted as state government workers in 2017. Since 2018, they have been classified as private-sector workers.

Governments have less industrial diversity than the private sector. Governments also have significant portions of their employment in public administration, no surprise there. Roughly two-thirds of state government employment was in public administration. A little less than two-thirds of local government employment was in education and health services. About 57 percent of this was education, such as public K-12, universities and community colleges. Federal government employment is a little more spread out; natural resources, transportation (the U.S. Postal Service), health services, along with public administration all have significant employment.

Wage Growth

State and local government annual average wages grew faster than the other ownerships from 2008 to 2018. State and local government average wages each grew by 36 percent, whereas private-sector average wages grew by 30 percent over the 10 years, and federal average wages grew by only 25 percent. It is important to note that these changes are for average wages for the entire ownership; they are not necessarily reflective of changes to individual workers’ wages. For example, most Oregon state government workers represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) received cost of living increases totaling about 15.2 percent from 2008 through 2018.

There are a variety of reasons that average wages increase over time. A major reason is that prices also increase. The U.S. Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners for the United States, a common measure for inflation, increased by 16 percent from 2008 through 2018.

Aside from general price increases, average wages can change for a variety of reasons. Hours worked, changes in productivity, and changes in the occupational mix of industries also affect how average wages change. Wages are often only part of employees’ compensation. Changes in providing other benefits, such as health insurance, can affect changes in wages. For many public employees complexity is added by legal changes, executive orders, and union contracts. During the Great Recession, many workers, both public and private, had wages frozen or cut, hours reduced, and benefits trimmed. Gaining back wages, hours, and benefits can occur differently for different ownerships and industries.
Most industries managed to increase wages more than inflation, but some fell short. Local government information had the smallest average wage gain over the period at only 3 percent followed by local government leisure and hospitality with a 9 percent gain. The local government information industry is primarily libraries. Local governments have shed some jobs in the high-tech part of information, and that may be depressing the average wage in the industry. The local government leisure and hospitality industry includes tribal casinos and recreation districts. The largest wage gain (+71%) was in local government’s professional and business service industry. This industry has grown with the ever-increasing use of computers for business processes, and computer-savvy occupations tend to pay well.

Occupational Differences

Wages are typically influenced more by occupation than by industry, and the private and public sectors have significantly different occupational mixes. As we saw above with types of industries, the private and public sectors also employ many of the same occupations. It is the frequency or number of workers in in those occupations that differs between ownerships.

The table shows the 15 most frequent occupations in Oregon for each ownership and their share of the total employment in that ownership. The three most common occupations in the
private sector were retail salespersons, cashiers, and food preparation and serving workers. This reflects the size of the retail trade and leisure and hospitality industries. Not one of these three occupations made the top-15 list for federal, state, or local governments. In fact, the highest rank that any of these three occupations had in the public sector was the 62nd spot – held by food preparation and serving workers in the federal government.
The private and public sectors had only three occupations in common from their top 15 lists: general office clerks, registered nurses, and secretaries and administrative assistants.

A look at the average wages for these common occupations shows how the different occupational mixes affect the average wage for the entire ownership. The four most common private-sector occupations all had average wages of less than $32,000 per year in 2019. In the public-sector only two the top 12 occupations (four from each public ownership) had average wages of less than $40,000. (And one of these two occupations, miscellaneous personal care and service workers in state government, has since been reclassified as a private-sector occupation.)

In the private sector only two occupations, general managers and registered nurses, in the top 15 had average wages of more than $50,000 per year. In federal sectors, ten common occupations had averages wages of more than $50,000; state government and local government each had nine common occupations that paid more than $50,000.

It was not simply the case that occupations in the public-sector always paid more than in the private sector, though that was often the case. The four ownerships had a total of 93 occupations in common in 2019. Of these, the private sector paid the highest average wage for seven occupations, the federal government paid the highest wage for 53 occupations, state government paid the most for 20 occupations, and local government paid the highest wage for 13 occupations. Of these occupations, the seven for which the private sector was the highest-paying employer were in management, finance, forestry, and the medical field. Federal and state high-paying occupations were not concentrated in any major group. Local government was the highest paying employer for some technicians and a variety of blue collar occupations.

Hour Differences

Another difference between the jobs in the four ownerships is the hours worked. Full-time jobs tend to have higher average annual wages than part-time jobs, if for no other reason than employees can usually produce more by working more. The Oregon Employment Department collects information on hours worked by employee. The information does seem to have some occasional reporting errors, and it is incomplete for federal workers, so they are not included in this analysis. Nonetheless, the data from 2018 show that private-sector employees worked an average of 1,417 hours for the year; state employees worked an average of 1,716 hours (21 percent more); and local government employees worked an average of 1,416 hours. As a reminder, public schools and universities are part of local government, and most schools have a summer break for instruction workers.

We can compare these percentage differences in hours worked to the differences in average wages for all workers. State government wages were 24 percent higher than in the private sector, and local government wages were 6 percent higher than in the private sector. The additional hours worked by state workers with respect to private-sector workers might explain a good part of the difference in average pay. That doesn’t seem to be the case for local government workers.

Summary

Wages and wage growth are important economic indicators and personally important to workers and employers. When comparing wages it is important to look not just at broad averages, but also to look at comparable industries, occupations, and hours worked. Other factors, such as location, working conditions, education, skills, experience, and benefits, also affect wages, but were beyond the scope of the data available for this analysis. These data do show that for private and public sector workers, differences in industry, occupational mix, and hours worked are related to differences in average pay.


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