Salaries have, in many cases, gone down in the past year. According to survey respondents, median salaries for all job titles at all levels have gone from $72,500 in 2005 to $65,000 in 2006. Source: PUBLIC WORKS
Work-life balance is the biggest attraction to working in the public sector. The vast majority of respondents receive benefits that private-industry employees rarely enjoy. Source: PUBLIC WORKS

While the cost of living continues to increase, most respondents to our exclusive survey say that their salaries are not keeping up. Annual adjustments fall below the inflation rate, which may be the reason the median salary fell from $72,500 in 2005 to $65,000 in 2006, and why public works managers feel their standard of living is falling.

When asked if their pay is competitive, 81% of respondents say their pay is “lower” or “much lower” than their counterparts in the private sector. This salary difference is real: Similar job duties at private companies can earn as much as 50% more. Some of this difference may be attributed to bonuses, which government employees generally don't receive.

Peter King, executive director of the American Public Works Association (APWA), doesn't think the disparity is as significant as our readers do. Within any given geographic region, he says, public-sector salaries at the professional level are set to be as competitive as possible to similar jobs in both the public and private sectors. In a growing economy (or in a region that is booming), all employers are challenged to keep the “best and the brightest.”

Some respondents complained of flat pay scales, lack of performance incentives, and little monetary benefit to moving up the department's ladder. Similar job titles do not always have similar duties, making it hard for compensation analysts to compare job titles from city to city.

What does this all mean? Elected officials must realize that essential public works staff needs to be better compensated—or somehow relieved of all the balls they juggle—or they risk losing key support personnel to the private sector.

Last year was the first year baby boomers became eligible for retirement. Over the next decade or so, public salaries may see a shift. Less-experienced youngsters will move up, while managers with more than 20 years of experience (who represent 44% of our survey respondents) will retire or move to high-paying private consulting positions.

The APWA's King says that though the number of positions in public works departments probably won't expand significantly, there will be more senior-level opportunities as managers leave the workforce.