Talk to any state agency head or public employee representative, and you might think workers are fleeing state government in droves, or avoiding it for better opportunities. The cause? Low pay, when comparing state workers to their private sector counterparts.
But the government sector is expanding in South Carolina, generally speaking.
Government grew by 400 jobs in January. Payrolls grew by 2,600 government jobs from January 2017 to January 2018. The government was one of the fastest growing industries last year behind leisure and hospitality, manufacturing, and education and health services, which grew by 7,300, 7,200 and 4,900 jobs, respectively.
The data was adjusted to remove the effect of seasonal patterns on hiring data.
Of the state’s roughly 37,000 full time employees—excluding teachers, employees at universities, and local government employees—nearly one-fourth are within five years of retirement eligibility.
Officials fret the state will be unable to attract young workers, who are drawn primarily by competitive salaries, to fill the gaps.
A 2016 compensation study found state salaries lagged private sector salaries by 18 percent.
But comparing public and private sector wages is like comparing apples and oranges. Many jobs don’t exist in both the public and private sectors. Governments have police forces and corrections officers. Private businesses don’t. Conversely, governments don’t produce consumer goods, so exact comparisons between public and private sectors don’t exist in some cases.
The salary disparity is often felt across state jobs with a private sector counterpart, however.
Proponents of across-the-board raises for state workers often fail to acknowledge one of the salary report’s key findings by Kenning Consulting—the classification and compensation plan needs redesigning before applying a significant increase.
“Otherwise, you run the risk of putting “new wine into an old wine skin” and this may exacerbate some of the issues with the current plan highlighted in the analysis in this report,” according to the findings.
I was curious to know what compensation would look like to a job seeker sorting through the 687 available jobs listed on the state’s job site—jobs.sc.gov.
Here’s what I found—
Job descriptions vary widely for the same job title.
The description of one opening for an entry level administrative assistant read like an opening for a paralegal role. No state paralegal classification exists, according to the 2016 study.
Salary ranges for the same job title vary widely across agencies (and the ranges are often broad).
The average annual wage for a administrative assistant in South Carolina is $32,270, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016—the last year the data was available. The state’s hiring range for such a position is from $26,988 to $49,932. One agency’s hiring range mirrored the state’s range. Another agency offered up to $30,000 for a similar position.
Some of the discrepancy hinges on how well-funded an agency is. Colleges and universities, for example, are partially self-funded. Other agencies rely solely on government funding.
Wage ranges at some state agencies adequately keep pace with average salaries for a given job.
For instance, the state salary range for an opening for a janitorial position is from $15,080 to $27,710. The average janitor’s salary in South Carolina was $22,060 in 2016.
A licensed practical nurse at one state agency can earn from $32,838 to $60,760. Licensed practical nurses earned $40,090 on average in 2016.
A broader survey from the state-commissioned salary study confirms and expounds on some of these findings.
It provides important context for understanding the perception of underpaid state employees.
That perception has been fueled by a 2017 law that hikes public employees’ pension contribution rates in an attempt to narrow the state’s approximately $22 billion pension debt. The law increased employee contribution rates to a capped nine percent, far more than public employees in many other states. The law also hiked the taxpayer-funded employer rate to 13.56 percent, which is set to increase one percentage point annually until 2023.
While the survey also found state salaries lag behind salaries in other states and in local governments, it’s important to note the limitations of comparing public and private sector salaries.
The public sector, which subsists on tax dollars, isn’t subject to market forces the way that other industries are.
Private industries provide goods and services based on demands by buyers and sellers.
Adept at taking and at deciding what services to provide based on the omniscience of elected bureaucrats, governments don’t.