Feds on the Job–Do they Stay for Idealism, Money, or as an Employer of Last Resort?

A majority of poll respondents indicated they stay with the government because of the pay and benefits

Why do Federal employees continue working for the government? Is it, as President Kennedy noted, an opportunity to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country?” Or is it because the compensation package is pretty good? Or is there another, less obvious reason?

A recent Fedsmith poll prompted the question. With our curiosity having been whetted by some of the articulate e-mail we received, we wondered why some people who clearly do not enjoy their jobs continued to work for the government. It seemed that a person with such strong feelings about a job would leave at the first opportunity. We also knew it was possible we were hearing more from those with negative feelings even though they may be a minority of the employee population.

As many readers may have suspected, strong idealism may have dissipated with the flower children and painted VW busses of the ’60?s. The bulk of respondents (just over 51 percent) indicated they stay with the government primarily because of the salary and benefits package. A few readers commented that they did not like the way the question was framed because, for example, they were satisfied with the retirement offered by the government but they did not think their salary was sufficient to compensate them for their efforts.

In our view, pay and benefits make up a total compensation package each employee must weigh in deciding to stay with an employer or leave. That was the rationale for not splitting the category into smaller pieces.

Here are several examples of what readers had to say about pay and benefits. One reader, a Navy employee, wrote:

“I think that job security and retirement are the most important, and if I knew twenty three years ago (when I started working in civil service) that the civil service was going to go down the toilet like it is starting to I would not have ever started to work for them, because I gave up a much larger paycheck for job security and a stable retirement?.”

A Social Security employee wrote:

“People have to pay the bills, so I would suspect that most people stay in the their job for the benefits and salary.”

Another Navy employee wrote: “The answer you should have had on the survey is: ‘It’s the only decent paying job in my area.’ ”

A firefighter wrote: “Pay and benefits are the ONLY reason I stay with my job?.”

About 16 percent noted that they stay with the government because it offers job security. With unemployment rising and the stock market going down from its peak several years ago, this is easy to understand as the government probably does offer more secure employment than many private sector jobs.

On this issue, one Navy employee said: “I guess I stay because of all the uncertainties i.e. businesses going bankrupt and laying people off.”

Career advancement is not a major factor apparently as it was selected by 2 percent of respondents as a reason for staying. 14 percent said they stayed because there was not a better opportunity offered elsewhere.

About 12 percent of respondents have arguably remained idealistic as they indicated they continue to work for government because it gives them a chance to make a difference in society. Some of these comments are very positive, even inspiring, and reflect the sense of purpose common among some of these readers.

One Veterans Affairs employee wrote:

“I have been working with veterans the past 20 years, I enjoy my job. I feel that I am giving back for all the efforts of veterans everywhere. I know that I make a difference and when I am able to rehabilitate 1 veteran that is usually enough for me.”

A Justice Dept. attorney wrote:

“Certainly decent, steady pay and good benefits make it possible to stay in my federal job, however the real reason to be here at all is that I can and do make a difference everyday. I have an opportunity to help people, as well as to ensure that people who try to manipulate the bankruptcy system are prevented from doing so.”

Another Fed wrote: “When I look back upon my 35+ years of Federal Service, I have to admit that it was the desire to make a contribution to this Country, some small difference, which has kept me going.”

So, for better or worse, those who voted in this survey strongly indicated the pay and benefits package were the primary reason they work for the government. A few are motivated primarily by the chance to make a difference among the citizens they are employed to serve and about 6 percent are not sure why they have stayed employed by Uncle Sam.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47