Public sector can offer more than just money

Though public employment is changing, it is still a viable option for many grads. (AP Photo)

By Mike Stallone

It’s hard to ignore the situation currently taking place in Wisconsin. Since the beginning of the recession, state governments across the nation have been looking for ways to balance their budgets, and the recent legislation put up by Gov. Scott Walker is just one of the more prominent examples. Federal deficit aside, the states have found themselves in real financial binds, with some even teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The Wisconsin legislation, which would require state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pensions, 12.6 percent to cover health care premiums and greatly weaken unions’ collective bargaining rights, has certainly been hotly debated. Whether you agree with the legislation or not, it’s clear that public employment is changing.

Even at the federal level, public employees have seen changes in their employment packages. At the end of 2010, the Obama administration established a two-year salary freeze for all civilian federal employees. The new measure is expected to generate $28 billion in cumulative savings over the next five years.

Many have argued that federal and state employees enjoy “too good to be true” benefit packages (including healthcare, pensions and paid time off) that should be first on the chopping block to lower the deficit. This is exactly what we have been seeing in the past few months, most visibly in Wisconsin. The same voices can be heard just down the road in Trenton as Gov. Chris Christie has also begun pushing for New Jersey state employees to have a larger personal stake in their healthcare benefits.

So why, amidst what seems to be the beginning of a war against public employment, would anyone work for the state or federal government? The argument has been posed for a long time — remove the incentives and nobody will be there to do the work. Could we be seeing a new generation of college graduates uninterested in wading through the legislation to take jobs at the state and federal level?

It’s certainly possible, but as with most jobs, there’s a lot more going on with public employment than the benefit packages (which at the federal level are remaining untouched). Two summers ago, I worked as an intern with the Department of Justice (DoJ) in its Office of International Affairs. I ended up working with extraditing international fugitives, helping prosecutors with high-profile drug trafficking cases and working directly with officials from foreign countries. I was 19-years-old at the time. I like to use this as an example because it’s not a very widely discussed fact — public employees at both the state and federal level are exposed to a lot of really sensitive (and interesting) work. As was my case, this sort of employment experience is unique to the public sector and to me represented something a lot more than a résumé filler or a potential benefit package.

I think we as college students are often forced to come to terms with the fact that our post-graduation lives may not be as professionally or intellectually fulfilling as we might otherwise expect them to be. So, as the public sector continues to come under fire in the coming months (it almost certainly will), remember it’s still a good option. My supervisor at the DoJ told me once how he left his job at a private-practice law firm to work in the public sector, taking a pay cut in the process, just for the quality of the work he’d be doing. It’s a consideration that could get lost in the debates, but remember it’s important nonetheless.