When it comes to government salaries and benefits, there is good news and bad news.
The bad news is that government salaries will tend to be lower than comparable positions in the private sector. The truth of the matter is simply that the government isn’t able to compete with private sector salaries. The government is not in the business of making money and thus can’t support the top pay ranges.
However, many positions – especially in the Information Technology areas – can be fairly competitive with the mid-range in the private sector.
How Salaries are Set and Administered
Salaries in the public sector are almost always a set range, based on the job. Each pay range will usually have a set number of “steps” to get from the lowest salary to the highest salary in that range. 10 steps are a common number of steps.
What usually happens is that everyone gets moved up one step each year and this is usually on top of a cost of living increase. Typically, steps increases range from about 1.8% to 2.2%, so combined with whatever the cost of living increase is, your salary can go up a decent amount each year. The downside is everyone gets the same increase: one step. There is seldom a way to get an additional “merit” increase.
Benefits Can be Good
The good news is in benefits. Many government jobs have excellent benefits that stack up quite favorably with the private sector. Two benefits in particular are frequently much better than the private sector.
The first one is vacation time. Since giving time off is not money out of the pocket, many public sector organizations are generous with vacations. This is particularly true in school districts. My last job was with a large urban school district and they started everyone off with 17 days vacation – that’s over three weeks. And it went up rapidly from there. Also, as you all know, the government takes ALL holidays off.
So if time off and predictable salary increases are what you’re looking for, look in the public sector!
The other benefit that is frequently better in the public sector is the retirement plan. With many private sector companies cutting back – or eliminating – formal retirement plans, the public sector retirement plans look particularly attractive. It’s not unusual to still be able to work 30 years and retire with 60% of your highest salary for life. Very few private companies offer this type of retirement plan anymore.
The bottom line is that whether or not you find public sector salaries and benefits attractive will to a large degree depend on where you are in your life and career. If time off is more important to you than money at your stage of life, then the public sector could very well be for you.