Government hires as private industry fires

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In 2009, as the private sector shed 4.1 million jobs, the federal government was on track to increase hiring by 8 percent. In fiscal 2010, there will be a record 2.15 million federal civilian employees on the payroll.

The census bureau is partly responsible for the increase – they hired the equivalent of 85,000 full-time employees to conduct the national population count. Yet even controlling for the spike in census hires, the federal government is on track to add at least 64,000 net new jobs in both fiscal 2010 and 2011.

And they’re earning more and more. The 2011 average compensation costs for civilian employees of the executive branch is projected at $86,911, a 6.7 percent increase over this year.

“Keep in mind these have been driven up by increasing health-care costs,” said Tom Gavin, an employee of the Office of Management and Budget. He pointed out that the executive branch generally outsources lower-tier work to contractors, so average salaries only reflect those of the highly-skilled talent running the government.

When Barack Obama was elected president, there were 1.9 million civilian employees nationwide — the last time the federal government employed more people than it currently does was 1992. Unemployment around Washington, D.C., where the concentration of government employees is particularly dense, is 6 percent – among the lowest of any major metropolitan area.
Seventy-nine percent of new federal jobs between 2009 and 2011 are in the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs and most of the increases in the federal government are on the civilian side.

Most of the jobs the government will be adding are skilled white-collar jobs, with a focus on public health, information security, scientific research, law enforcement, and financial services. Across the board, white-collar federal jobs paid an average salary of $74,403 in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To put it in perspective, the total costs of salary and benefits for all federal employees this year — both civilian and uniformed (more than 4.5 million people, plus Active Guard and Reserves), is expected to reach $447 billion — a 7 percent increase over the previous year.

“I’m not surprised that the numbers going up, in part because federal employment has always increased in times of stress,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the non-profit Partnership for Public Service. He pointed to the fact that as a proportion of the total U.S. population, the number of federal employees per-capita has been dropping since the 1950s. In 1953 there was one federal worker for every 78 residents; in 2008 it was one per 155 residents.

Palguta, a career civil servant with more than 30 years in federal Human Resources Management, said the projected hiring increases in the current budget are conservative. A government-wide survey conducted by his organization in the fall found that the government needed to hire at least 270,000 more employees for  “mission-critical” jobs by 2012, and that the total number of new hires in Obama’s first term will be about 600,000, or third of the federal workforce. Palguta notes that at least a quarter of these hires will be replacements for retiring baby boomers.

Nationwide, the average annual salary for a federal employee in 2008 was $66,293 — compared to $45,371 in the private sector, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Part of the reason for an increase in hiring may be Obama’s focus on government contractors. In March 2009 the president issued a memorandum that called for reducing spending on outsourcing by $40 billion. The Office of Management and Budget then issued guidelines for all federal agencies to make a 7% cut in contracting over the following two years. As a result, the government is moving more work in-house, which may also be contributing to an increasing federal payroll.

A recent report emerged from the Bureau of Labor Statistics which showed that for the first time, more than half of all union members in the country worked for the government.