I am with Megan McArdle in confirming that the non-pay portions of the typical public employee compensation package is at least as important, and as potentially expensive, as the money itself. In particular, two aspects of many public employee compensation packages would be intolerable in my service business:
- Inability to fire anyone in any reasonable amount of time
- Work rules and job classifications
From time to time I hire seemingly qualified people who are awful with customers. They yell at customers, or are surly and impatient with them, or ruin their camping stay with nit-picky nagging on minor campground rules issues. In my company, these people quickly become non-employees. In the public sector they become... 30 year DMV veterans. Only in a world of government monopoly services can bad performance or low productivity be tolerated, mainly because the customer has no other option. In my world, the customer has near-infinite other options. And don't even get me started on liability -- when liability laws have been restructured so that I am nearly infinitely liable for the actions of my least responsible employee, I have to be ruthless about culling bad performance.
The same is true of work rules. Forget productivity for a moment. Just in terms of customer service, every one of my employees has to be able to solve customer problems. I can't automatically assume customers will approach the firewood-seller employee for firewood. All my employees need to be able to sell firewood, or empty a trash can when it needs emptying, or clean a bathroom if the regular cleaner is sick, or whatever.
For those who really believe state workers in Wisconsin are underpaid, I would ask this question: Which of you business people out there would hire the average Wisconsin state worker for their current salary, benefits package, lifetime employment, work rules, grievance process, etc? If they are so underpaid, I would assume they would get snapped up, right? Sure.
Bonus advice to young people: Think long and hard before you take that government job right out of college. It may offer lifetime employment, but the flip side is that you may need it. Here is what I mean:
When people leave college, they generally don't have a very good idea how to work in an organization, how to work under authority, how to manage people, how to achieve goals in the context of an organization's goals, etc. You may think you understand these things from group projects at school or internships, but you don't. I certainly didn't.
The public and private sector have organizations that work very differently, with different kinds of goals and performance expectations. Decision-making processes are also very different, as are criteria for individual success within the organization. Attitudes about risk, an in particular the adherence to process vs. getting results, are entirely different.
I am trying hard to be as non-judgmental in these comparisons as I can for this particular post. I know good people in government service, and have hired a few good people out of government. But the culture and incentives they work within are foreign to those of us who work in the private world, and many of the things we might ascribe to bad people in government are really due to those bad incentives.
It is a fact you should understand that many private employers consider a prospective employee to have been "ruined" by years of government work, particularly in their formative years. This is simply a fact you will need to deal with (it could well be the reverse is true of government hiring, but I have no experience with it). That is why, for the question I asked above about hiring Wisconsin government workers, the answer for many employers would be "no" irregardless of pay.