Most public servants say there is much more to a job than a paycheck, like work-life balance and the opportunity to help others. But would you bet your salary on this?
This year we reformulated our annual salary survey to learn what keeps you and your colleagues working. We included questions about benefits, job satisfaction, and what respondents would like to see more of in their jobs and their benefits packages.
What we discovered may surprise you.
For instance, wages are more important than the ability to contribute to society. Only 29% of survey respondents feel that “meaningful work” is an important factor in job satisfaction. What is more important—other than wages—are benefits, good management, and job security.
Even so, most public works professionals enjoy their work. Nearly 85% of respondents are somewhat to very satisfied with their positions—with 40% describing themselves as very satisfied. Only 6% are somewhat dissatisfied and less than 2% are not at all satisfied.
And, perhaps most important for managers, we learned what makes public employees walk away: poor leadership before low pay.
A little more than half of all respondents say a “bad boss” would drive them from their jobs. The second most-cited reason for leaving is insufficient pay, and the third is micromanagement.
Benefits Getting More Expensive
As one survey respondent reminds us, no matter how much we may love or hate our jobs, and no matter how community-minded we are, most of us work to collect a paycheck—so we can eat.
In 2007, two-thirds of salary survey respondents earned $50,000 to $100,000, with the average salary between $75,001 and $80,000. For a breakdown of salaries by title, department, or region, .
A little more than half of all respondents (59%) expect to receive between a 1% to 3% pay raise this year, and one-fifth expect a 4% to 6% increase. Only 14% expect no wage increase.
Still, 76% of public sector employees believe they receive lower pay than their colleagues in the private sector. In the past, exceptional pension plans and fully paid health insurance have enticed people into careers in public works by offsetting lower pay scales. But budget constraints and rising health-care costs are adversely affecting benefits packages, especially for nonunion employees.
Already some respondents say they are experiencing diminishing benefits, increased employee contributions, and more out-of-pocket expenses. According to one Southeast water/waste-water utility director, “benefits have been reduced each year.” On the bright side, the director adds that “our benefits are still better than many other agencies and companies.”
Roughly half of all respondents agree that their benefits are better than those of private industry counterparts, while 29% say their benefits are about the same, and 20% feel their benefits are not quite as good. Overall, those entering the profession can expect to receive:
Direct deposit (90% of respondents are offered this option by employers)
- Health insurance (96%)
- Holidays off (96%)
- Sick leave (95%)
- Paid vacation days (97%)
The majority of survey respondents also receive:
- Dental insurance (81%)
- Life insurance (82%)
- Pension plan (85%)
But if benefits continue to erode, the profession will have to find creative ways to attract talent.
Is Your Department Prepared For The Inevitable?
In a few years the first big wave of baby boomers will retire, leaving in its wake a vast knowledge and expertise gap. If our survey is any indication, there's still a lot to be done in securing the next generation of infrastructure managers: Only 6% of respondents are under 35.
What's more, though many respondents shared what they're doing to attract talent—offering flexible work hours and teleworking; providing mentorship and succession programs; reclassifying positions and salaries; offering internships, co-op programs, and scholarships; and developing strategic plans—just as many say their departments aren't doing a thing.
Thus, in addition to fighting the never-ending battle for larger maintenance budgets, your next major challenge is convincing elected officials and taxpayers of the importance of maintaining an attractive salary and benefits package.
Because the incoming generation—and, according to this survey, the current generation—of employees is not as keen as their successors on doing more with less.
Editor's note: We're taking an in-depth look at how public works departments are tweaking operations to lure young talent into their ranks, and will report on this trend in May.
Why PUBLIC WORKS readers stick with it.
“The people I work with make my day go by fast and the laughs make it worthwhile.”
- “Great place, great people, and the work is challenging. I really enjoy interacting with residents and city staff.”
- “It provides well and allows me to spend time with my family.”
- “I'm well paid, work with great people, and do things that are important.”
- “I have a great boss and a great working environment.”
- “I serve the public and make a significant difference in their lives, whether they know it or not.”
- “I work with a thoughtful, intelligent, experienced director and the very best co-workers. I have independence and loads of variety in my position, and a great administrative support staff.”
- “My salary and benefits are good. Plus, the flexible work schedule allows 10-hour shifts with Fridays/Saturdays/Sundays off.”
- “I have the freedom to solve problems without someone saying we can't do it.”
- “I enjoy making a difference and protecting the environment.”
- “The policy here is that each individual is valuable and contributes to the cause. The organization as a whole does everything it can to motivate individuals to better themselves personally and professionally.”
- “I work independently and direct my staff as I see fit.”
- “I can point to something and say, ‘I had a hand in that.' And usually it's something that helps the citizens of my city.”
- “I am appreciated for the talent and knowledge I bring to the table.”
- “Public works is the heart of every community, and that's what makes the job so great."
Disgruntled employees sound off.
“Local elected officials think they know more about the job than employees.”
- “I just had my second ‘boil water' order in six years because they refuse to fix three valves.”
- “I have to fight the same fight every time a new administration comes in and wants to prove that everyone before them was lazy and corrupt.”
- “Micromanagement = Lack of trust/confidence of superiors.”
- “The new administration has turned our workplace into a high-stress environment."
- “I have never received a promotion. My boss rarely speaks to me. My duties are not challenging or stimulating.”
- “Low pay...more work...not appreciated by management.”
- “The new manager replaced department heads and any tenured rank and file with lower paid, less experienced, and sometimes unqualified people.”
- “Not enough budget or employees.”
- “Upper management and regulatory agencies have a different agenda than meeting the public good.”
- “My responsibility and contribution are greater than my salary.”
- “The only work that is meaningful, enjoyable, and that produces actual results is done by entry-level employees and summer interns. To achieve the salary necessary for a reasonable standard of living, a person has to be promoted up to the level where nothing of substance is being accomplished. And by then, it's too late to make a career change.”
- “Incompetent co-workers. An uneducated superintendent. An uncooperative village board. A run-down facility. Mismanagement of funds. Not having the right tools to do your job. Other than that, it's great!”
Education versus experience
Comparing compensation in the public sector is tricky.
Comparing compensation in the public sector is tricky. Depending on factors as diverse as climate, demographics, and tax base, each city, county, and state has unique infrastructure needs and writes job descriptions accordingly. So PUBLIC WORKS readers with the same job title rarely have identical responsibilities.
Using academic degrees is misleading, because certifications and licenses must be factored into the equation—but having extra certificates doesn't guarantee extra pay. And often, experience yields expertise that's worth more to a community than a degree.
For instance, a little more than one-fifth of the public works directors who responded to our third annual salary survey don't have college degrees. Plus, the greatest percentage of survey respondents without a college degree, certification, or license—14%—earns between $65,001 and $70,000. The greatest percentage of respondents without college degrees but with licenses or certifications earn less—$45,001 to $50,000 (12%).
This doesn't mean education isn't important. The greatest percentage of respondents with either a high school or associate degree makes about $30,000 less than the greatest percentage of those with bachelor's degrees. And there's as much as a $40,000 difference in pay between the greatest percentage of respondants who are engineers without PEs and the greatest percentage who are engineers with PEs.
Education trumps experience
In the text above, we shared what the greatest percentages of respondents with and without college degrees earned in 2007. This table also shows median salary ranges by education level. Source: PUBLIC WORKS
For Your Information. . .
The typical respondent to our third annual salary survey:
Is a 43- to 54-year-old Caucasian male
- Is a manager/supervisor or engineer
- Works either in engineering or the streets, roads, and bridges department
- Works for a Midwest city that serves more than 1 million people
- Has a bachelor's degree (and probably a PE)
- Supervises 4 to 6 employees
- Has 4 to 6 years of experience in his present position, more than 20 in public works, and less than a year in the private sector
- Works 41 to 50 hours a week.
We thank the 1650 PUBLIC WORKS readers who completed our online salary survey, and congratulate the 10 who were randomly selected to receive gift cards.
How does your salary compare?
This region-by-region analysis compares median salaries of survey respondents by population served. You can find median salaries by title or by title and department/area of work. Note: Not all titles, departments, etc. are represented due to lack of survey respondents from those areas.