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Will governments be able to attract the workers they need in the early twenty-first century? For the past two decades, observers have warned of a "quiet crisis" of steadily deteriorating "quality, morale, and effectiveness of the federal civil service" (Levine 1986, 200), "ubiquitous anomie" throughout the federal service (Wildavsky 1988,753), and "serious morale problems [as] a tragic and endemic hallmark of the federal service" (National Commission on the Public Service 1989, 91, ix). Despite apparent morale problems, there is little systematic evidence of either declining quality or rising turnover in the public service (Crewson 1995; Lewis 1991), but that may be partly because governments have had only a limited need to hire replacement workers, due to downsizing and pension plans that tie baby boomers to their federal jobs (Ippolito 1987). As the huge wave of baby boomer retirements swells, governments may face increasing difficulty finding enough of the workers they want--especially young college graduates of diverse races with the kinds of motivation and skills that governments desire (Light 1999,128-29).
This impending wave of hiring increases the need to investigate what kinds of people are attracted to government jobs and what characteristics make those jobs appealing. In this article, we analyze the 1989 and 1998 General Social Survey (GSS) to examine how people's demographic characteristics and the importance they place on various job attributes affect both whether they currently work for government and whether they prefer to work for private business or government. Most previous studies of public-private differences compare the attitudes of current public- and private-sector employees (typically with nonrandom samples), but becoming a public-sector employee involves both choice and chance. Matching an applicant with a job requires the government's willingness to offer a job and the individual's willingness to accept it. Comparing people who prefer to work for government or for the private sector may offer new insights into sectoral differences.
In the first section, we develop a model of choice between public- and private-sector jobs, reviewing arguments about what types of people should be attracted to government careers. After describing the GSS data, we then test those hypotheses using cross-tabulations and logistic regression. In particular, we look at the impact of demographic factors (race, sex, veteran status, age, and education) and the impact of the importance respondents place on high income, job security, and opportunities for public service. We then discuss possible implications of our findings.
A Model of Sectoral Choice
Kilpatrick, Cummings, and Jennings (1964, 23-24) find that job seekers typically rate financial rewards; job security; worthwhile, useful, interesting, and challenging work; opportunities for advancement; and good working conditions as the most important considerations in choosing a job. In searching the job market for these qualities, "people usually perceive occupations and employing organizations, not precisely and realistically, but in terms of vaguely generalized cultural pre-judgments" (Kilpatrick, Cummings, and Jennings 1964,7). Therefore, individual preferences for government or business jobs reflect not only their own job priorities, but their perceptions of which sector will better satisfy their needs. The relationship between the importance people place on various job attributes and their preference for public- or private-sector jobs should indicate which priorities lead to a predisposition to public employment and what stereotypes Americans have about jobs in the two sectors.
Although economists typically assume that pay is the key factor in workers' job choices, many public administration scholars argue that money matters less, and nonpecuniary benefits matter more, to public- than to private-sector employees (Crewson 1997; Karl and Sutton 1998; Kilpatrick, Cummings, and Jennings 1964; Perry and Porter 1982; Rainey 1982; Wittmer 1991). Implicit in the public administration literature is the belief that government pays less than the private sector, a view shared by federal employees (1) but largely rejected by the general public. (2) Although U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys indicate that federal pay is over 25 percent lower than private-sector pay for similar jobs, economists typically find that similar workers (those of the same race and sex with the same levels of education and experience) earn much more in the federal than in the private sector, though evidence on state and local government pay is mixed (see Langbein and Lewis 1998 for a review of the research). Thus, both economists and public administration scholars expect those who place the highest priority on pay to be driven toward the higher-paying sector, but they probably disagree as to which sector that is.
Government careers are generally more stable than those in the private sector. Civil service protections make dismissals more difficult in government than in non-unionized private firms, and layoffs are uncommon, since government agencies downsize less frequently than private firms and almost never die. Several studies have found that government jobs are especially attractive to security-seeking employees (Baldwin 1991; Bellante and Link 1981; Kilpatrick, Cummings, and Jennings 1964), but Newstrom, Reif, and Monckza (1976) find that private-sector employees actually value job security more than public servants, and Rainey (1982) and Karl and Sutton (1998) find no significant difference between the two sectors in the importance of job security.
Attitudes toward Public Service
People's preferences for government or business jobs should reflect their attitudes toward the two sectors. McFalls and Gallagher (1975) argue that people are attracted to the sector that is most compatible with their political beliefs; because Democrats are more likely than Republicans to favor an activist government, they should also be more likely to choose public-service careers. Perry and Wise (1990, 370) argue that "the greater an individual's public service motivation, the more likely the individual will seek membership in a public organization." This hypothesis has found some empirical support (Crewson 1995, 1997; Rainey 1982; Warner et al. 1963), but also some counterevidence (Gabris and Simo 1995). Although government offers many opportunities to perform meaningful public service (Kilpatrick, Cummings, and Jennings 1964; Perry 1996; Rainey 1982), the nonprofit sector does so as well, and the growing emphasis on customer service in business makes clear that all sectors offer opportunities to help others.
Job Opportunities, Demographic Factors, and Sector Preferences
Occupational choices, location, and era all influence one's likelihood of working for government. Almost all soldiers, firefighters, police officers, and schoolteachers, for instance, work for government. People living in Washington, DC, or a state capitol will be more likely to find government jobs than those who live in small towns. Those who started their careers in the 1960s were much more likely to find federal jobs than those who entered the labor market in the 1990s. Availability of jobs probably also affects their attractiveness--if one's friends and relatives are finding government jobs, one is more likely to hear positive things about those jobs. The following demographic characteristics may influence access to and desire for government jobs.
Education. Today's government requires a highly educated workforce. Many occupations requiring college educations are concentrated in the public sector (such as teachers). Based on analysis of the 1979 Current Population Survey, Blank (1985) finds that the probability of government employment rises markedly with education.
Race, Sex, and Veteran Status. Although women and minorities still earn less than comparably educated and experienced white males in the federal service (Lewis 1998), the white male pay advantage is smaller in government than in the private sector (Asher and Popkin 1984; Perloff and Wachter 1984; Smith 1977). In addition, governments have older and better-enforced bans on discrimination against women and minorities, and many grant …