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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Comparing Compensation for Federal and Private-Sector Workers: An Overview

David H. Bradley
Specialist in Labor Economics

Recently there has been significant congressional interest in compensation of the federal civilian workforce. The increased interest has been driven at least in part by budgetary pressure and in part by the state of the economy since the recession began in 2007. Issues related to the compensation of federal employees often center on the pay differential between federal workers and their private sector counterparts. For several years, the annual President’s Pay Agent (PPA) study has shown a large wage penalty for federal workers compared to private sector workers in similar occupations. A few recent studies, however, which use a different analytical approach and data sources, have partially contradicted the findings of the PPA study by concluding that at least some federal workers enjoy a wage premium over comparable private sector workers. These disparate findings make it difficult to determine how compensation of federal employees compares to workers in the private sector.

In evaluating claims about federal pay, there appear to be two basic approaches to comparing compensation in the federal and private-sector workforces—the human capital approach and the jobs analysis approach. The human capital approach attempts to account for as many observable characteristics of individual workers as possible (e.g., education, experience) that are known to affect individual compensation. The jobs analysis approach, on the other hand, focuses on matching comparable jobs in different sectors rather than workers with similar demographic characteristics in those sectors. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive but may be difficult to combine given data limitations. Each approach is outlined in this report, followed by an examination of a few recent studies comparing federal and private sector compensation. The studies reviewed were chosen because they are official government studies (President’s Pay Agent, Congressional Budget Office) or have received significant attention in policy debates.

Results from these studies, which at times arrive at vastly different conclusions, provide some useful information about evaluating competing claims related to the compensation of the federal workforce. In general, the more methodologically rigorous “human capital” studies show a pay premium for federal workers with lower levels of educational attainment and a pay penalty for federal workers with higher levels of educational attainment. The range of worker and job characteristics is sufficiently broad across sectors that claims about “average” workers conceal much of the variation driving differences in compensation. For purposes of policy, the most informative studies show variation in compensation differentials by some control variables.

Of the five studies under review, one reports an overall average wage penalty for federal workers (PPA), one reports neither an overall average wage premium nor a penalty for federal workers, and three find overall average wage premia for federal workers compared to private sector workers. Only two of the studies—CBO and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)—report earnings differentials by level of educational attainment, however. While the AEI report shows a clear wage premium across levels of educational attainment, the more methodologically rigorous CBO study finds a more nuanced outcome. That is, federal workers with less than a bachelor’s degree have on average a wage premium compared to private sector counterparts, while federal workers with post-graduate educational attainment on average experience a wage penalty relative to private sector counterparts.

Date of Report: July 30, 2012
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: R42636
Price: $29.95

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