Public Versus Private: Not So Different After All?

On the balance, the worlds of local government and industry share many of the same traits.

by Josh Ellerbrock, The Lima News / March 5, 2018
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(TNS) — LIMA, Ohio — As someone who has made the switch from a plant manager to a department head, Allen County Jobs & Family Services Director Joe Patton said the private and public sectors “aren’t as different as people think.”

Both sectors require experienced workers able to do the job. Both need employees who consider the goals of the larger organization when making decisions on its behalf. But he did admit at least one difference – public employees tend to be a little more, well, public. Case in point: the list of governmental salaries printed in this newspaper.

But where does the reality of the situation lie? Are there differences for employees between the public and private sectors? If these differences exist, how significant are they?

From wages to work culture, The Lima News takes a closer look in its 25th year of reviewing government salaries.

Wages

In the private sector, salaries stretch from the lowest of the lows to the highest of the highs. Executives, attorneys, business owners and surgeons – those with highly specialized skills – might scoff at the comparatively low wages of public administrators, but an individual who hasn’t seen a raise for years will see the somewhat standard three-percent annual cost of living adjustment and the public sector’s retirement benefits as a blessing compared to what they might bring home every week.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 34.3 percent of workers in Lima earned less than $25,000 in 2015. Of the 498 workers on Lima’s payroll in 2017, only 18.3% fell under that category and even then, none of Lima’s employees that earned less than $25,000 worked a full year as determined by their hourly wage.

On the other end, the highest paid Lima employee is Mayor David Berger (Deputy Fire Chief Ed Hower retired this past year, and his payroll includes back pay), who has an hourly wage — if his salary is divided into 52 40-hour work weeks — of $65.09. The top 75th percentiles of chief executive officers in Lima, according to May 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, earn $82.94 per hour. Other private careers that exceed that pay scale are sales managers, industrial production managers, doctors and some pharmacists.

It’s a matter of perspective, and if one conclusion can be drawn from the numbers, government salaries tend to reside in the middle of the market. They generally don’t go too high or too low, but for employees filling those positions, they get steady work, good benefits and a steady retirement.

That being said, employees of smaller municipalities tend to have smaller annual salaries, and their payrolls may not always reflect these general trends.

“You’re not going to get rich in government, but you’re going to be able to feed your family,” Lima Director of Human Resources Vincent Ozier said.

Experience of government workers

According to Ozier, the city’s hiring process may include more steps than a similar private position, but he’s looking to answer the same question a private human resources manager might be asking — can a hiree do the job?

To get a public job, City of Lima employees must first apply to an open position then take a skills test before making it onto an eligibility list. Ozier and other department heads then try to match personality and skills to the needs of the position. A road crew in the utilities department might be trying to find a maintenance worker that can add concrete expertise to a group strong in other areas. Or as Patton explained, a team might need a more detail-oriented thinker to balance out a team of excitable communicators.

If someone has private experience, it’s not a detriment, Ozier said. It might be a positive, depending on the position.

Clayton Bacon, who served as Allen County Engineer in the 1980s and now runs a private engineering office, said he uses the same skills at both kinds of jobs.

“In the workload and how you deal with people, they’re very similar,” Bacon said. “If you’re good at one, you’re going to be good at the other.”

Bacon said both public and private engineering positions need employees that can communicate well and can do the work. The only difference is who needs that work. While head of the county’s engineer’s office, he had to answer to the commissioners. Today, he answers to his clients.

“Somebody always has a boss,” former Bluffton Police Chief Rick Skilliter said. Skilliter resigned in 2016 and ended up at Perry ProTech before deciding to take a position with a nonprofit, the Partnership for Violence Free Families, where he interacts with many of the same people he knew while leading the Bluffton Police Department.

“Learning the nuances of that hierarchy — it’s important to survival, obviously. There’s a parallel there,” Skilliter said.

Many job tasks, such as managing budgets and human resources, don’t differ between the private and public sectors, Skilliter said. Even individuals with very specialized governmental jobs, such as police officers, have skill sets that can make the jump.

“I’ve certainly found the training, the experience, you get as a police officer can be applied to the private sector every day,” Skilliter said.

Work culture

If there is a difference between the two sectors, Ozier said, it’s how decisions are made. In the private sector, the bottom-line influences every action, but in the public sector, the bottom-line is put on the back burner in favor of other variables – charters, regulations and the public good — which slows down the pace of business.

“People like to criticize government, ‘Well, it doesn’t move at the speed of business.’ It’s not supposed to. It’s not designed that way,” Ozier said. “If government worked at the speed of business, you’d have social unrest.”

Good government is supposed to minimize extreme actions in order that fewer people get hurt by changes. It keeps things on an even keel, he said.

That doesn’t exactly mean that private organizations are free from red tape, Patton said.

“I don’t see (the difference) as bad as people think,” Patton said. “There are corporations that when you have to do a job posting, they have just as much red tape.”

Both sectors have their roadblocks, but a good worker knows how to get around them and get things done, he said.

Industrial Millwright Services Co-Owner Lisa Greear had spent 12 years working for an architect’s office years and an additional 13 years as a Putnam County grants coordinator before returning to the private sector beside her husband, Duane Greear.

Greear said government work attracted her because of its steady enjoyable work that provided good benefits. But her work with Industrial Millwright Services gives her more freedom due to her position as the boss.

“I enjoy what I’m doing today,” she said. “It’s very satisfying. We started a business working out of a pole barn. Now we have a facility in the industrial park with 17 employees.”

For those who have made jumps to and from the public sector, the two may seem more like two sides of a coin than completely different entities. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, but for their employees, both can be just as satisfying as the other.

“Each company has its own flavor,” Patton said.

©2018 The Lima News (Lima, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.