Public vs. private wages — statistics

It is hard to draw apples-to-apples wage comparisons between the two sectors, because many state and local government jobs have no direct analogy in the private sector.  Additionally, there is a broad range of hardship, risk and required training across public sector jobs, just as in the private sector.  Also, compensation varies among governmental units. 

It does appear that, on average, state and local government employees make somewhat higher wages than private sector employees.  This appears to be because the occupations that are most common in state and local government are among the better paid occupations generally.  There does not appear to be a clear pattern of wage differences between state and local employees and private sector employees doing the same work.

 Overall Wage/Salary Levels 

 National Compensation Survey data for the Boston-Worcester-Lawrence metropolitan area from October 2006 put average hourly straight time earnings from state and local government workers at $28.14, 15% above private sector workers at $24.41.  On a full year basis, the percentage difference is less because teachers — one major employee category — work fewer hours per year than most full-time employees.  According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, nationwide state and local government wage and salary accruals in 2007 were $49,113 per full-time-equivalent employee as compared to $48,035 in the private sector.  Private sector wages in these accounts may be inflated by large compensation packages at the highest levels of industry which have no counterpart in the public sector.

 Wage/Salary Levels by Occupation

 Below is a collection of occupational comparison points based on Massachusetts May 2007 Earnings by Occupation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The comparisons are based on straight time pay; they exclude overtime.   Note that these data, based on a semi-annual mail survey, do not include self-employed persons or military personnel.  (See NCS FAQ for an explanation of the differences between these data from the Occupational Employment Statistics Survey and the data from the National Compensation Survey.) 

 Many state and local government occupations have wages that are well above the median:

  • The median annual wage for all occupations in Massachusetts was $38,420 in May 2007.
  • Medians for the major (more than 5,000 employed) occupational categories which are found primarily in state and local government are mostly above the all-occupation median:
    • Elementary school teachers (ex. sp. ed.) — $57,270
    • Secondary school teachers (ex. sp. and voc. ed.) — $56,970
    • Middle school teachers (ex. sp. and voc. ed.) — $55,960
    • Special education teachers, preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school — $53,560
    • Educational, vocational, and school counselors — $51,630
    • Police and sheriff patrol officers — $51,590
    • Firefighters — $48,280
    • Emergency medical technicians and paramedics — $35,260 
    • School bus drivers — $30,430
    • Teacher assistants — $23,280
  • Of course, some of the occupations which occur across both public and private sectors, but are well represented in the public sector, are low paid occupations.  For example:
    • Office clerks, general — $28,710 
    • Laborers and freight and stock and material movers, hand — $26,110
    • File Clerks — $24,170 
  • Major (i.e., employ over 5,000 people) private sector occupations which offer median compensation similar to the larger public sector occupations (i.e., medians in the range of $50K to $60K) appear to be very roughly in the same skill bracket as those occupations:
    • Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, except technical and scientific
    • Insurance sales agents
    • Training and development specialists
    • Sales representatives, services, all other
    • Compliance officers, except agriculture, construction, health and safety, and transportation
    • Plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters
    • Medical and clinical laboratory technologists
    • Claims adjusters, examiners and investigators 
    • First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers
    • Electricians
    • Public relations specialists
    • Computer support specialists
    • Electrical and electronic engineering technicians
    • Employment, recruitment, and placement specialists
    • First-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers
  • Occupations offering median incomes over $60K are mostly financial, managerial, professional or technical and include many technical health care roles (notably registered nurses, with a median income of $71,970).
  • Occupational groupings (including multiple specific occupations) offering median incomes in the range between $30K and $50K include production, construction and office and administrative support work.  These three groupings alone account for over 1/4 of the work force.
  • Occupational groupings offering median incomes under $30K account for almost 1/3 of the work force.  They include:
    • Transportation and material moving occupations 
    • Healthcare support occupations 
    • Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations 
    • Sales and related occupations 
    • Personal care and service occupations 
    • Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations 
    • Food preparation and serving related occupations

Wage/Salary Levels by Occupation Adjusted for Work Level

 The National Compensation Survey attempts to rate occupations based on duties and responsibilities — so as to allow comparisons across sectors and occupations.   For a detailed explanation of the system click here.  This system does not fully reflect the variation in difficulty of jobs (teaching in one school may be much harder than teaching in another).  Additionally, hourly wages may or may not fully reflect homework, although for salaried workers the survey does attempt to collect actual hours worked.  (See Appendix A  of the NCS October 2006 report referenced.)   With these caveats noted, it appears that compensation levels in state and local government are a little low at the highest levels and a little high at the lower levels.   This outcome makes sense as a result of effective collective bargaining by unions — it will help the lowest paid workers, but not management.  Education jobs stand out as relatively highly compensated in state and local government (on a per hour basis).  

Selected line item comparisons from Tables 3 and 4,
Boston-Worcester-Lawrence, MA-NH-ME-CT, National Compensation Survey, October 2006.
Mean Hourly Earnings for Full Time Employees
Table 4 State and Local Government  Table 3 Private Sector
Level 12 Management  $51.17 Level 12 Management  $60.74
Selected Occupations or Sub-occupations rated at Level 9
    Management  $32.92    Management  $32.50
    Education . . . (grouping)  $45.79    Education . . . (grouping)  $29.60
    Registered Nurses  $31.43    Registered Nurses  $35.68
       Bus. And Fin. Operations  $28.65
       Computer and Math  $35.56
       Arch. And Engineering  $36.51
       Sciences  $26.50
       Sales  $50.94
Selected Occupations or Sub-occupations rated at Level 7
    Office Support  $25.08    Office Support  $24.11
    Bus. And Fin. Operations  $21.65    Bus. And Fin. Operations  $25.66
    Police  $25.85    Computer and Math  $26.63
    Education . . . (grouping)  $41.18    Management  $23.86
       Production   $25.60
       Arch. And Engineering  $26.36
       Sciences  $23.35
       Sales  $32.53
Selected Occupations or Sub-occupations rated at Level 2
    Education . . . (grouping)  $14.09    Health care support  $12.67
    Building Cleaning  $15.36    Building Cleaning  $12.46
    Office Support  $14.30    Office Support  $13.57
       Food preparation and serving  $7.17
       Sales  $9.29
       Personal care and service  $8.66
       Cashiers  $9.11
    Production   $11.64

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.