Thursday, February 24, 2011

Myths About Public-Sector Employment

I’ve been thinking about public-sector employment for several reasons. Right now I’m working on a book to be titled 150 Best Federal Jobs. And in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Ohio, and many other states, governors are making noises about their states’ obligations to public-sector employees. So this is a good time to dispel some myths about work in the public sector.

One myth is that public-sector employment is increasing. This myth fits nicely into a broader narrative of creeping socialism. For example, last week, Speaker Boehner asserted that President Obama has added 200,000 federal workers since he took office. However, the facts don’t bear out such claims. The FedScope database of the Office of Personnel Management (a goldmine of data about federal jobs and an important source for my current project) reports a total of 107,057 nonpostal jobs added in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Even with the addition of postal jobs, that’s well short of 200,000. Evidently the Speaker’s aides were also counting temporary Census jobs, so the Speaker was talking about cutting some federal jobs that actually are already gone.

The other factor to bear in mind is that the overall number of jobs increases as the population increases (except during recessions), so what counts is not the total number of government workers, but rather their fraction of the nation’s population. The Office of Management and Budget projects (PDF) that the fraction representing federal employment will decline slightly, continuing the trend of several decades. The OMB report notes, “In 1953, there was one federal worker for every 78 residents. In 1989, there was one federal employee for every 110 residents. By 2009, the ratio had dropped to one federal employee for every 147 residents.”

Another myth that is particularly current right now claims that public-sector workers earn more. The is true only if you look at all public-sector and all private-sector workers. But the two workforces are not comparable. For example, only about half as many federal workers are on part-time schedules as those in the private sector. On average, federal workers are also older and better educated. Most important, public-sector employees tend to work in higher-skilled occupations than private-sector workers. Think of all the fast-food workers, groundskeepers, home health aides, and other low-skill workers in the private sector. Some of these jobs do get done in government-run facilities (for example, the cafeteria in the state house), but these positions are few compared to those in the private sector, and the trend is toward contracting this work out to private businesses.

One interesting study by the Economic Policy Institute (PDF) focused on state and local government employees, who are receiving special attention in these times of drastic budget shortfalls. The study used data from the Current Population Survey to match comparable workers in public-sector and private-sector jobs. The researchers found that low-skill workers do have an advantage in jobs for state and local government, probably because they are more likely to be unionized than in the private sector. When total compensation (including pensions and other benefits) are quantified, “High school graduates received total compensation of $53,880 on average working for state and local government compared to $50,596 for workers employed by private employers, a public employment compensation premium of 6%.” However, more-educated workers actually pay a penalty in total compensation for taking a job with state or local government: 25% for those with bachelor’s, 31% for a master’s, 21% for a doctorate, and 37% for a professional degree.

Let’s not forget that many of the statements we read in the newspapers about public-sector employees are motivated by politics rather than by economics. Wisconsin is a perfect example of this. If the governor were concerned only with dollars and cents, why did he target only the public-sector workers who opposed him politically (the teacher union) and not the public-sector workers who supported him (the state police union and one powerful firefighter union)?

One advantage that public-sector workers definitely have, on average, over private-sector workers is job security. Some of this result from the higher unionization rate of public-sector workers. Some results from civil service regulations that are designed to prevent government workers from being favored or targeted for their political loyalties. And some results from the inertia of public-sector positions; private-sector businesses are more nimble at both creating and terminating jobs.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Occupations with Many Part-Time Workers

People work part-time for many reasons. Some can’t find a full-time job. Some need a lot of free time for nonwork responsibilities, such as school or care for a dependent child or parent. Some use this work arrangement as a way to try out a career or to break into one; others use it to gradually back out of a career into retirement. Still others combine it with another job (perhaps also part-time) that doesn’t pay enough.

After 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics stopped publishing figures about the percentage of part-time workers in each occupation. However, these percentages are unlikely to have changed greatly. That’s why the following table is probably still accurate in its selection of occupations with more than 50 percent part-time workers, based on 2006 figures.

The figures for employment 2008 are for all workers, not just part-timers (but you can do the math with the percentage of part-timers to get a rough idea of how many there are). The figures for projected growth, projected annual job openings, and median annual earnings are also for all workers. Note that part-timers in most occupations earn a lower hourly rate than do full-time workers. The exceptions are a few highly-skilled health-care occupations, in which the part-timers tend to be night-shift workers, who earn a premium.

Dental Hygienists is the obvious winner in terms of both earnings and job growth, and it’s also the one requiring the highest level of skill. The occupations with the highest number of job openings have both a large workforce size and a lot of turnover. Most of these occupations tend to be held by younger workers. In some cases, there are physical demands that young people can more easily meet (e.g., Models or Lifeguards, Ski Patrol, and Other Recreational Protective Service Workers). In other cases, the low pay and low skill requirements make the job attractive to young people with limited work experience and low income needs.

The main exception is Crossing Guards, which attracts many retirees. Municipalities like to hire them partly because they can be trusted with greater responsibility than younger workers. They enjoy the ability to find part-time work within walking distance of home. In addition, their roots in the community allow them to learn about job openings.

[Note: On some browsers, you may have to scroll down a bit to see the table.]

Library Technicians120,56065.0%8.8%6,470$29,570
Hosts and Hostesses,
Restaurant, Lounge,
and Coffee Shop
Crossing Guards69,93062.0%9.4%2,560$23,390
Counter Attendants,
Cafeteria, Food Concession,
and Coffee Shop
Dental Hygienists174,06058.7%36.1%9,840$67,340
Demonstrators and
Product Promoters
Lifeguards, Ski Patrol,
and Other Recreational
Protective Service Workers
Protective Service
Workers, All Other
Library Assistants,
Ushers, Lobby
Attendants, and Ticket
Motion Picture
Dining Room and
Cafeteria Attendants
and Bartender Helpers

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Importance of Soft Skills

I just finished reviewing JIST’s second online workshop. The first one we created, Job Search Advantage, is about job-hunting skills. The new one, still in development, is about mastering soft skills.

During a session at last week’s Careers Conference, one participant said he regretted that many people consider soft skills something extra, something nice to have but not essential. He argued that they should be recognized as the most important skills of all.

I agree, and I believe that everyone needs to take stock of his or her soft skills. One important reason is to decide which careers and job openings to pursue. It helps to have a good understanding of your ability with and interest in such work requirements as reading other people’s feelings, being persuasive, accepting criticism, and being supportive. So, for example, a person with both ability and interest in being persuasive might consider a position in sales; someone good at being supportive might consider health care or a team-oriented work environment. Someone who feels inadequate at reading other people’s feelings or just lacks interest in doing so might want to avoid team-oriented work and look for careers or positions where the work is done solo, for example in some mechanical repair jobs.

If you already know what your job target is, you have an entirely different reason to think about your soft skills: to be able to sell yourself as the best person for the job. Nowadays one reason why some jobs are not being sent to a foreign shore is that they depend on a human touch. For example, although some help-desk jobs are being done abroad, many companies are maintaining an American staff to do this work because they find that American workers achieve a better rapport with American customers. These workers need to be able to ask the most effective questions of the people who call and rapidly detect any confusion that may arise. Other jobs that are not in danger of being offshored, such as many health-care jobs, nevertheless need workers who are able to interact well with the public and work well as a team.

It’s not enough to identify the soft skills you have mastered that make you a good job candidate. You need to go further to think of ways to demonstrate your mastery of these skills to the potential employer. The job interview gives you only a very limited opportunity to demonstrate these skills, and you may not even get that far if your resume shows no signs of your soft skills. So you need to indicate your soft skills on your resume and do so in ways that go beyond mere assertions. For example, instead of merely saying that you are skilled at negotiating, you might identify a particular instance of a difficult negotiation you accomplished. You can demonstrate your teamwork skills by giving an example of a collaborative accomplishment. You may think that achieving something as part of a team somehow dilutes your credit, but you can make it count as an achievement for the teamwork skills it shows.

One additional reason to take stock of your soft skills is to recognize which ones you need to work on--and then get started on doing so. As with any skills, with these there is the problem that you can’t get the job without the skills but seemingly can’t get the skills without the job. The solution is to find ways to build the skills in nonwork situations, such as volunteer activities. Volunteer with a community organization to serve on a project that requires you to work with other people. It may help for you to become more active in a group you already belong to, because you’ll be less shy about working with people you already know. As you get involved in projects requiring soft skills, it’s vital that you ask for constructive feedback from your co-workers and accept it without being defensive. Alternatively, you may be able to build these skills in your current job by asking your supervisor for a low-stakes, limited assignment that uses these skills; again, ask for feedback and make use of it to improve your skills.

Soft skills are not really soft when you consider the impact that they can have on your career.