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The Pros and Cons of Working for Government

Updated on May 28, 2013
ChrisMcDade8 profile image

Christine McDade is a Human Resources professional (PHR & SHRM-CP) with over 18 years in the public sector.

Christine McDade is an experienced human resources manager.

Working for the state and local government is a rewarding experience for individuals who desire public service.
Working for the state and local government is a rewarding experience for individuals who desire public service. | Source

Why would someone want to be a government worker?

People have found working for the government to be an appealing livelihood for hundreds of years. From the times of public patronage with status that came from holding appointed positions, many found government work to hold a certain prestige that offered a means to earn a living and a rewarding career.

Elected Officials. Today, there are many who pursue a paid position in the public sector by campaigning and winning an election. While these positions receive a salary, the elected positions in government are generally sought after by individuals who have a desire to represent a sector of the public in the activities of their respected governmental body. Once the official's term has ended, however, there is no guarantee that one will be re-elected to the same position. Furthermore, if there is a term limit, there is a guarantee that the time in this paid position will end. Government is designed in this manner to help eliminate the idea of a monarchy or a political ideology from having a long-term hold on government.

Government Employees. There are others, commonly referred to as government employees, who go through a recruitment process to secure a desired public sector job. This hiring process resembles that of the private sector in that the individual must complete an application/resume, attend an interview, and then finally be selected based on the skills possessed. These jobs generally have generous benefits and pensions that are not a customary part of private sector jobs. These benefits attract a lot of people to seek positions in government. Much like elected officials, public employees serve citizens at the federal, state, or local level of government. Many government employees find working in the public sector to be very rewarding.

Many state workers have offices located in their state capitol building.
Many state workers have offices located in their state capitol building. | Source

Historical Tidbits About Government Employment

To the Victor Goes the Spoils

When Andrew Jackson was elected President of the United States in 1828, a new era of government employment emerged. President Jackson believed that it was totally appropriate to hand out government jobs to those individuals who backed him during his political campaign. The idea that handing out jobs to people who will support their ideas, and therefore their political initiatives, was an attractive concept to President Jackson and subsequent U.S. Presidents. Years later, President Abraham Lincoln was known to have to dealt with office seekers who were also able to freely enter the White House to seek an audience with him.

Another U.S. President, James Garfield, lost his life after being shot by a disgruntled office seeker, Charles Guiteau. Guiteau unsuccessfully sought the position of Ambassador to France. When denied this opportunity, he decided to shoot President Garfield. The President died eleven weeks after being shot by Guiteau. Reform of the patronage system and the creation of the Civil Service were results of years of abuse and excesses in the handing out of government jobs. The Pendleton Civil Service Act, also known as the Pendleton Act, was passed during the presidential term of Garfield's successor, President Chester Arthur. This piece of legislation addressed jobs at the federal level, and passed due to public outcry over past abuses.

President Lincoln encountered his fair share of office seekers after he was elected to the U.S. Presidency.
President Lincoln encountered his fair share of office seekers after he was elected to the U.S. Presidency. | Source

The Pro's of Being a Government Worker

While working for the government carries the stigma of past inequity of political favors for job seekers, modern-day public workers apply and are selected primarily because of the educational and work experience they have. They make the decision to apply for public jobs for a variety of reasons. People recognize there are various aspects of the job that make serving the public very attractive. Commonly accepted reasons for desiring government positions are:

  • Pension - Public sector employees often have a form of pension that they qualify for once they vest per the plan's requirements. Whether it is a defined benefit plan, a defined contribution plan or a hybrid of the two, government employees usually are given the opportunity to vest and/or contribute toward a retirement plan for their future.
  • Work Schedules - Government positions offer a variety of work schedules. Many government positions hold traditional daytime work schedules (Monday through Friday) that appeal to people. In addition, there are government positions that have shift work which offers the night shift and weekend schedules.
  • Vacation and Other Leave - Government employees enjoy vacation and other types of personal paid leave as a part of their compensation package. Paid time off allows them to have time to attend their children's school functions, go on vacation, go to doctor appointments, etc. Vacation and personal leave time often increases the longer the employee remains on the job.
  • Holidays - Employees who work for the public sector often have more days off on holidays than their private sector counterparts. Federally observed holidays and some state holidays are enjoyed away from the office as paid time.
  • Insurance Benefits - Government employees usually have good health insurance benefits with options to purchase additional coverages such as vision and dental. Some public entities pay for the employee's health insurance and a portion of their dependent coverage.
  • Education Reimbursement - Many government employees have the opportunity to get their higher education pursuits reimbursed by their employers.
  • Union Representation - Many public employees are represented by unions in the workplace. Unions negotiate the terms and conditions of the workplace for the workers they represent. Having someone to fight for them in situations of a grievance or disciplinary matter can be very helpful to a public employee.
  • Stability - One commonly shared thought about working for the government employee is that there is stability in the work. After all, there is always a need for public safety, public health work, etc.

In addition to the perks and benefits listed above, many people choose to be a part of the public sector because they like the idea of serving the needs of citizens. Public sector positions such as firefighters, police officers, teachers, public works personnel, etc., serve such an important role in American society. The foundation from which this country is able to prosper and live successfully as U.S. citizens is made up of the efforts of public sector employees. Knowing that they are not meeting the bottom line for purposes of a profit is a very rewarding sentiment for public employees.

The Con's of Being a Public Employee

For the many reasons that people seek public sector jobs, there are many other reasons that discourage others from seeking such employment. While the benefits of time off, pension and worthwhile insurance are definitely positive aspects of government employment, there are things about public sector work that are important to consider before accepting a government job. Consider the following:

  • Lower Wages - The government is not known as an employer who pays its employees very well. It is generally an understanding that the benefits as mentioned above help make up for the salary that is normally lower than the private sector salaries.
  • Harsh Media Attention - Public employees often have the scrutiny of the media and other watchdogs who will not hesitate to be critical of public workers and their work. While accountability for taxpayer money is understandable, having one's name put in the newspaper or played on the nightly news because you happen to work in government can be unnerving for many public workers.
  • Limited Resources - Public sector employers do not generally have the funding and resources available for state of the art technology and equipment needed to perform the job. Furthermore, training is sometimes limited to local trainers due to the travel costs associated with flights, car rental and/or lodging.
  • Stereotypes - How many government workers does it take to dig a hole? This whimsical question and other jokes that get told about government workers are part of the stereotypes that are used to describe government. Due to stories of government waste and scandals that have been told over time, government workers are often easy targets for criticism by others.

Working in a government job has plenty of drawbacks that can make such employment undesirable. For many, dealing with the stereotypes and other negative drawbacks listed above is enough to prevent an individual from applying for a job in the public sector.

The Future of Government Employment

While the future is unpredictable, there are certain societal needs that require the performance of work by public sector employees. There will always be the need to have clean parks that are safe for parents and their children. Emergency response for accidents and illness will remain a priority for communities. Furthermore, an effective infrastructure to keep it all together is necessary for a healthy environment for all. Government workers will strive for meeting the goals presented by their public sector employers because they do care about serving the needs of the public. Although aspects of the government workplace will change over time, the need for government workers to perform much-needed jobs remains constant.

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