Jul 11, 2022 - Economy

The government is having a hard time hiring

Percentage of jobs lost at the start of the pandemic now recovered, by sector
Data: BLS via Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

"We're losing staff and unable to replace them," a middle school teacher in New Jersey tells Axios, helping explain what's going on with the government jobs recovery — it's lagging behind.

Driving the news: While the number of private-sector jobs surpassed its pre-pandemic level, there are 664,000 fewer people employed in the public sector, according to the government jobs report released Friday.

Why it matters: Government employers are competing for workers in a super-tight labor market, and they have less to offer: The jobs typically pay less, for starters.

  • "The postal service and public schools can't offer workers higher pay," said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, in an email to Axios. "People have fled the public sector for the private sector, where signing bonuses and faster wage growth have been far more accessible."

Details: Government budgets set pay bands, which are harder to change in response to competition.

  • And while private-sector employers are offering hybrid and remote options, government work isn't typically as flexible.
  • Meanwhile, in some areas, like education, the post-pandemic landscape is making the work a lot harder — more on this below.

The big picture: After the Great Recession, government employment also took longer to recover, but for a different reason: State and local governments were low on cash because tax receipts fell and the federal government cut funding.

  • That shouldn't be an issue now — the federal government has given out lots of stimulus dollars, and last year's economic growth made for windfall tax revenue.
  • There's an unusually high number of government job openings at the federal, state and local level, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, JOLTS via Fred; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, JOLTS via Fred; Chart: Axios Visuals

Zoom in: Teachers are a good case study — education jobs make up most of state and local governments' employment — and they're not doing so great.

  • The middle school teacher, who asked not to be named, said they're teaching children with more behavioral problems, haunted by the specter of gun violence, and harassed by increasingly angry parents.
  • "Today’s teachers are navigating the threat of school shootings, a pandemic and intensifying political interference in their lesson plans — all while their wages remain stagnant," Axios' Erica Pandey and Alison Snyder wrote last month, explaining the crisis.

What's next: States are taking measures to alleviate shortages.

  • Arizona just passed a law allowing schools to hire teachers before they earn their college degree  almost a third of teaching positions were vacant as of January, Axios' Julia Shapero reports.

The bottom line: "My husband works in the tech industry, and they’re paying recent college grads $120k to start," the middle school teacher said via a Twitter message exchange. "Who wants to teach for $50k, especially if they have student loans and the added risk of getting hit or shot in the building. My husband has never broken up a fight or been cursed at by a teen."

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