The economics of public sector employment

Our Dr Pedro Gomes has been researching public employment for nearly fifteen years. He shares why it is so important to understand how the public sector works and the key findings from his research.

Public employment is a significant consideration in any national economy. In developed countries, public employment makes up 15-30 percent of total employment and represents the large majority of government consumption. In the US, for example, the government spends 60 percent more on general government employees than on the purchase of intermediate goods and services.

The public sector also operates according to different rules than the rest of the economy, as governments do not face the same competitive forces, nor have the same objectives as private sector firms.

Considering that the public sector is responsible for delivering many key services in our society, from education to healthcare, it is essential to have a good understanding of how its employment operates. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has again put focus on the importance of having a modern public sector, with an employment force prepared to face difficult, unpredictable and unlikely crises, but its aftermath with high public debt, also puts emphasis on the costs of the public sector workforce.

Below are three of the key findings from my research into this area.

Governments hire disproportionately more educated workers

In the paper Public Employment Redux, my colleagues Pietro Garibaldi, Thepthida Sopraseuth and I explore the phenomenon whereby governments hire more educated workers than the private sector.

We noticed that governments hire very few workers with low qualifications. In the US, for example, one third of workers have a masters or a PhD qualification, and one third of these work for the government.  We documented empirical evidence for this education bias in the US, UK, France and Spain.

There are a few different explanations for this trend:

  • The government needs more educated workers to provide its highly technical goods and services, such as healthcare, education and the judicial system.
  • Higher educated workers take more of a wage penalty to work in the public sector, so are relatively less expensive to hire.
  • Public sector jobs that require low qualifications pay more than similar level jobs in the private sector, so they attract workers with more qualifications.

Within our model, we found that the technological skills needed for the public sector was the main driver of the disproportionate representation of educated workers, but that wage setting and excess underemployment explain 12-15 percent of the education bias.

Unlike other sectors, the government is able to set wages more freely, as the cost is financed from tax revenue. If the government chooses to pay very high wages, too many people will choose a skilled role in the public sector as their first choice. However, if wages are too low, too few workers will want to join the government.

In reality, a balance is needed, so the government can always attract the workers it needs, without leading to underemployment in the public sector.

Nepotism in hiring practices allows friends and family to ‘jump the queue’ for government roles

Public sector hires are often based on nepotism: Scopa (2009) found that the probability of working in the public sector is 44% higher for individuals whose parents also work in the public sector, while Colonnelli et al. (2020) found that politically connected individuals in Brazil enjoy easier access to public sector jobs.

In my research into this topic with Andri Chassamboulli, we suggest that workers can use their connections to find jobs in the public sector faster. We created a search and matching model with private and public sectors to test this theory.

Surprisingly, we encountered some positive side effects to nepotistic practices. Conditional on high public sector wages, our findings suggest that hiring through connections reduces unemployment, as people who do not have connections will instead find roles in the private sector. Conversely, if the government sets the optimal wage possible for the successful running of the public sector, nepotism is reduced.

We conclude, therefore, that nepotism is a symptom of a problem in the public sector, rather than the disease, and the problem is created when wages are set too high.

Women prefer working in the public sector

In most countries, the public sector hires disproportionately more women than men. My colleague Zoë Kuehn and I developed a model to try to make sense of this imbalance.

Our findings show that the gender imbalance in the public sector is driven by supply, meaning that women self-select to work in the public sector more than men. One explanation for this is that the type of job carried out by the government is coincidentally the type of work preferred by women, such as healthcare and education. However, even discounting these sectors, women’s public employment remains 20-25% higher than men.

This remaining imbalance can be explained by the different characteristics of public and private employment. The gender wage gap and working hours are both reduced in the public sector, making this an attractive choice for women who may be factoring family commitments alongside work opportunities in their choice of employment. Alongside reduced working hours, the public sector offers additional benefits such as more sick days, flexible hours and employer-provided childcare, ensuring an overall better work-life balance in the public sector.

 

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Why do women favour working in the public sector?

Research carried out by Birkbeck’s Dr Pedro Gomes and Professor Zoë Kuehn from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid aims to understand why women self-select to the public sector.

The public sector is a large employer, accounting for between 10 and 35 percent of total employment in OECD countries. In most countries, the public sector hires disproportionately more women than men. With my colleague Zoë Kuehn, I developed a model to try and understand this imbalance.

Through the lens of our model, we view the gender bias in public employment as driven by supply, meaning that it is not the government that acts explicitly to hire more women, but it is women that choose the public sector more so than men. Our objective was to better understand this selection, in particular, how much of it is explained by public sector job characteristics that are related to management, organization and human resource practices in the public sector.

We documented gender differences in employment, transition probabilities, hours, and wages in the public and private sector using microdata for the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. We then built a search and matching model where men and women could decide whether to participate and whether to enter private or public sector labor markets. Running counterfactual experiments, we quantified whether the selection of women into the public sector was driven by: (i) lower gender wage gaps and thus relatively higher wages for women in the public sector, (ii) possibilities of better conciliation of work and family life for public sector workers, (iii) greater job security in the public compared to the private sector, or (iv) intrinsic preferences for public sector occupations.

A natural explanation for the gender bias in public employment could be that certain types of jobs that are predominantly carried out by the government could be preferred by women. However, our research revealed that, for the US, the UK, and France, once we exclude health care and education, women’s public employment is still 20-50% higher than men’s. Interestingly enough, the gender bias is less pronounced within public health care and public education compared to other branches of public employment.

Regarding transition probabilities, we estimated that the probability of moving from employment to inactivity is higher for women, but we found this probability to be significantly lower for public sector workers.

We also provided evidence that gender wage gaps and working hours are lower in the public sector. Individuals holding full time jobs in the public sector work between 3-5% fewer hours compared to similar individuals holding full time jobs in the private sector. However, fewer working hours are just one aspect of a better work-life balance (next to additional sick days, holidays, flexibility to work from home, employer provided child care etc.). In our model we wanted to capture differences in work-life balance across sectors in an ample sense, and hence we do not use these estimates to identify any parameters. Nevertheless, our results on fewer working hours in the public sector support the claim of a better work-life balance in the public compared to the private sector.

The results of our research suggest that women’s preferences explain 20 percent of the gender bias in France, 45 percent in Spain, 80 percent in the US, and 95 percent in the UK. The remaining bias is explained by differences in public and private sector characteristics, in particular relatively higher wages for female public sector workers that explain around 30 percent in the US and Spain and 50 percent in France. Only for France and Spain do we find work-life balance to be an important driver that explains 20 to 30 percent of the gender bias. Higher job security in the public sector actually reduces the gender bias because it is valued more by men than by women.

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