One competitive advantage for government work is its higher starting pay, says Saint Louis University’s Ken Warren.

One competitive advantage for government work is its higher starting pay, says Saint Louis University’s Ken Warren. LEREXIS/Getty Images

Pay and Prestige For Civil Servants: The Historical Advantages—and Disadvantages—of Government Work

The advantages have “helped to recruit and keep some very good people in government work,” according to one academic.

Most Americans take it for granted that we have federal government agencies staffed by capable people who can and will provide services to help solve problems. For all the disparagement of government employees in recent years, especially among some politicians, Pew Research poll results released last month show a majority of Americans continue to approve of the work of 14 of 16 leading federal agencies. 

Reinforcing that message, a recent report from the Gallup organization summarizes that, “the majority of Americans say the federal government should have the responsibility for a number of societal functions, including protection from foreign threats, protection from unsafe products, preventing discrimination, maintaining the nation's transportation systems, protecting the environment and making sure Americans have adequate healthcare.” 

And a major factor behind why most Americans can reasonably maintain expectations that government should perform these crucial tasks must be because it is already doing so. That is, each day people see the fruits of the work of public servants—and in their estimation much of it is getting done, and well enough, thanks. Because paid professionals at most agencies, hired competitively over the years, are for the most part perceived to be doing a decent job.  

But historically this hasn’t always been the case. For example, prior to the New Deal our federal government was smaller, paid less and played a less prominent role. Having said that, some countries and cultures have long offered a relatively good deal in life to civil servants—including periods of higher prestige (if not pay) that go back centuries. For some snapshots of the varied role of pay and prestige in public sector work, Government Executive interviewed Saint Louis University’s Ken Warren, a veteran political scientist, and expert on American government and the history of the civil service in the U.S. and abroad. 

Q&A with Kenneth Warren

GovExec: Prof. Warren, you study and teach not just on the civil service in the U.S., but also on public servants at the state level, governments of other countries as well as historical changes in these over time. How important is pay to recruiting and retaining good people—and in making sure government is able to provide services and keep societies strong and functioning?  

Warren: It’s very important. When you look at the United States—and paid work by people in the federal government in particular—starting pay is usually higher for government work than in private enterprise. And that is a competitive advantage that has helped to get some of the best people to ensure government services get done. But—and this was for a long time rule of thumb—on average after just three years a person who went to work for private enterprise was earning more money than a person with the same qualifications in a federal job. The point is there have long been—and still are—some advantages to government work, and that has helped to recruit and keep some very good people in government work. 

GovExec: How does the federal government stack up on pay, historically speaking, compared to state and local governments and the private sector? 

Warren: Pretty well. Especially at first. The biggest downside for the person who goes to work for the private sector is that their starting pay is usually low. At first, that is. Like I said, and as your readers have seen elsewhere, the federal government historically has done quite well in recruiting, because the starting pay for many jobs has been comparatively quite high. That's an advantage specifically for federal work—it’s usually not the case at the state and local level. Of course, this all depends on which state government we’re talking about. Looking at public sector pay by state, it varies greatly. Missouri—and West Virginia, Arkansas and others—for instance, are low-paying state governments. Connecticut, New York and others, on the other hand, are high-paying state governments. The important thing to your readers is that if you look at the federal government, new hires do quite well at first—and that has helped federal agencies to do pretty well at recruiting, historically speaking, because their initial pay rate is pretty high for salary paid for comparable positions—versus state governments or the private sector.

GovExec: But in recent decades, as federal government work increasingly demanded higher skills—for backgrounds in STEM and tech—that “rule of thumb” you just cited must be less applicable, right? Government is doing less well for new hires against private industry as those higher-paying lower-skill jobs go away or are contracted out, right?  

Warren: That’s right. We can look to my own family for examples on these trends. During the Great Depression—yes, a long time ago—my father ran chicken farms and was going broke. He was saved by government work. The pay was much higher than the private sector! My daughter, on the other hand, has advanced degrees and was offered very high-paying jobs from Silicon Valley employers, and many of these companies are offering better pay for new hires, too. Anecdotes aside, the statistics show federal employees on average are paid about a quarter less on the dollar compared to the private sector (and the problem is even more glaring at for public sector employment at the level of the states.) But these figures don’t take into account specific jobs—or the advantages of some federal benefits and basic job security. 

GovExec: And as you’ve previously noted that government work is often better for pay and benefits for those just out of the gate into the working world, right? 

Warren: That’s right. Again, there are also other advantages new employees see in working for the government, one being job security. Government has always provided jobs that are more secure, period. For all employees, they provide a more secure package. Private enterprise sometimes offers great and high-paying jobs. But you really never have the kind of guarantee that you can pretty much count on if you start and stick with government service. Some marquee companies offer it sometimes, but you might end up finding out otherwise. A couple decades ago, Enron seemed like it offered very long-term, high-paying jobs, and we know how that ended. Much more recently, thousands of people who joined top tech firms have wound up in the same situation. They lost their great pay, benefits and even pensions with their jobs—all in one stroke, you see? Historically, that’s just not going to happen with federal government jobs. It’s very rare.  The private sector is very volatile. It’s a major downside. On the upside, the pay after a few years especially can be very good.

GovExec: Briefly looking at other places and times you’ve researched, particularly Europe in the last century and China over time—any thoughts on incentives for the public vs. private sector? 

Warren: A few quick things. Looking at European countries, at least over the last century there’s been a more socialistic attitude about government work and work across sectors generally. In the U.S., incentives reflect this attitude relatively little, mostly I would say in terms of job protections and job security. In Europe, by contrast, government and private sector employers both provide huge safety nets. So there is less difference between the sectors compared with here. Finally, as most people know, Europeans fortunate enough to have decent jobs get more vacation time, more leave, and better benefits in general than their U.S. counterparts.

GovExec: You have done a lot of research on contemporary and ancient China—where deep in history some dynastic governments provided resources for well-functioning civil services, right? 

Warren: On China, briefly I would say public sector jobs there have always offered an edge beyond just the pay issue. I mean, since long before the U.S. even existed. That’s still the case and it owes to a cultural difference, where government work, framed to be for the communal good, is held in very high esteem.