The news today that the President is proposing to freeze federal pay increases for the next two years is not entirely unexpected, though it is certainly disappointing. The drumbeat of federal employee scapegoating has been going on for a while. From the pages of USA Today (which has repeatedly published stories with misleading and overblown headlines regarding federal compensation) to right wing think-tank reports designed solely to shift the focus of people's ire during these economic tough times, a concerted effort has been undertaken to organize what amounts to a witch-hunt.
We've all heard it: federal workers make twice what their private-sector counterparts bring down; many feds make more than $150,000 per year, etc., etc. Interesting myths, to be sure. The fact that focusing on how "unfairly" federal workers are compensated takes eyes off of the multi-billionaires who fund the tea party movement, and who are making out more and more like bandits, scooping up ever greater shares of the income and wealth pies in America, must simply be a coincidence. Likewise, the possible outcome of going after federal compensation (draining the federal workforce of competent people who could make more elsewhere, and who don't need the aggravation), a Grover Norquist dream come true, has nothing to do with these efforts.
I graduated with a master's degree in electrical engineering in 2003, after previously earning a bachelor's in electrical engineering in 2000. This represented a career change for me: previously, I'd received a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1991, and had worked quite a variety of jobs in the private sector, including telephone customer service, retail sales, youth care (at a group home for troubled kids), and disk jockey for a local music production/events company.
I earned good grades in my undergraduate and graduate work, ultimately graduating with honors. No, I didn't manage a 4.0 gpa, but close. My GRE scores for graduate work were excellent. Further, I was both a research assistant and teaching assistant during my graduate career, and participated in a co-op work program during my undergraduate studies. My graduate work focused on RF design, semiconductor fabrication and device physics, among the highest-paid subcategories of electrical engineers.
As I approached completion of my graduate research and studies, I interviewed at several places. I received a job offer at a semiconductor fabrication company in Minnesota for $60,000 plus signing bonus. At about the same time, I was offered a job with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Starting pay: roughly $49,000, plus a signing bonus.
After weighing the pro's and con's (including where I wanted to live), I took the job with Commerce.
Now, after seven years with the DoC, my salary is roughly comparable to what I would have been making in the private sector, on average, with the same education and experience. That's "on average," though: the highest-compensated private sector engineers with my experience and educational background make considerably more.
So why did I decide to work for the government, when I could have been paid so much more in the private sector? In part, it was about wanting to make a difference. Sure, I could have brought in more bucks working for a company. I probably would have done well there, and advanced fairly quickly (depending on the company, of course). But I would have felt more like a cog in a wheel. I enjoy feeling like what I do matters, and helps people. Of course, the work I do now focuses more on diplomacy and policy than pure engineering–something I would have had trouble doing in the private sector, unless I were involved in government at some level.
Now, what about those loud proclamations about overpaid federal workers? there are some, to be sure, just as there are in the private sector (I've seen such folks from both perspectives). But frankly, I've seen more competent, qualified, dedicated, and smart people in my current line of work than I saw in the private sector. And yes, most could make more working for a company somewhere.
I strongly suspect that we hear about overcompensation of federal employees because there's really no downside to right wingers claiming such: when you hate the government with a knee-jerk passion, demoralizing and thinning the federal workforce is a good thing. Plus, you get to distract people from those who really make out like bandits these days.
Not too long ago, word was that working for the government was the act of a fool: you could make so much more (especially as an engineer) working in the private sector. Now, of course, we hear about how unfairly good government workers have it, and that something must be done about it. Perhaps a better use of our time, rather than finding scapegoats, might involve trying to improve the lives and fortunes of those in the the private sector workforce.