Federal Workers Are More Likely to Die Than Lose Their Jobs (and for Good Reason)

USA Today bemoans the fact that you're more likely to die than get fired from a federal job. An economist says this makes perfect sense.

A new USA Today report finds that if you work for the government, you're more likely to leave your job because of death from natural causes than you are to get fired. Same goes for layoffs, even in the recession. Private companies fire or lay people off at a rate of 3 percent annually; the government fired only 0.55 percent of its workers last budget year.

Besides getting some generic comments from federal representatives on how they try to "hire the right people," USA Today quotes one San Francisco State University management professor saying this is a bad, bad thing. The low departure rates show a failure to release poor performers and those with obsolete skills, he says. He adds that these statistics "would indicate a serious management problem."

Not so fast. This analysis reveals a complete lack of understanding of the unique job market in the public sector, says Heather Boushey, senior economist for the Center for American Progress.

"[The professor] is assuming that firing relates to skills," she tells me. "But many federal workers are highly technical and better educated than the population overall. The government has invested years of training to place them in a very specific job, so they're much less likely to fire them. Sure, there's administrative and support staff, but in many cases we're talking about a much more specialized labor force."

This means that most government workers aren't tied to the business cycle. When the economy goes into a recession, we still need our air traffic controllers, civic engineers, and meterologists. These people's jobs don't have all that many substitutes in the private sector; teachers don't often turn around and become secretaries. So when they lose their jobs, it's much harder to reintegrate them into the workforce. Consider the closing of the shuttle program: it leaves in the lurch tens of thousands of people whose jobs are reliant on this government program. Where are the alternative opportunities for shuttle technicians? On the other hand, the federal government's food service workers, most of which don't have specific skills, got fired at almost the same rate as private sector employeesat a rate of 2.5 percent.

Finally, government workers tend on average to be older than the workforce overall, so there are demographic reasons for that sensational death statistic.

Boushey reminds me that this kind of investment used to be a lot more common in the private sector, a truism that has become all the more obvious in the age of mass layoffs.

"People are having shorter job tenures, and employers aren't making longterm commitments to employees," she says. "There's been a real cultural change in terms of how invested private employers are to cultivating their workers."

photo (cc) by Flickr user expertinfantry

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