Gov Careers

By Phil Piemonte

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The value of longevity -- What’s your federal experience worth?

How about taking $47 billion off the federal payroll? That’s what a new Heritage Foundation report is suggesting.

In the report—from the group’s research arm, the Center for Data Analysis—labor economics policy analyst James Sherk suggests that lining up federal and private-sector salaries more closely could cut the federal payroll by $47 billion in Fiscal Year 2011. Sherk also suggests reducing the scale of the average annual federal benefits package, which he says comes to $32,115 per employee, compared to just $9,882 in the private sector.

It’s all there in the report, not so subtly titled “Inflated Federal Pay: How Americans are Overtaxed to Overpay the Civil Service.”

While the report slices the data a lot of different ways to prove its case, I didn’t notice anything that assessed the dollar value of time on the job—as in longevity.

“Federal employees know they get a better deal through their employment. The proof is that they rarely quit,” the report says. “If federal employees earned market compensation they would leave their jobs at rates more similar to private-sector workers.”

I am not sure that would be a good thing.

I learned the value of long-term, institutional knowledge at about the age of 19, while working in a sprawling truck axle plant in Ohio.

During inventories, everyone in the plant was taken off the lines to count parts—all those gears and pinions and housings that go into the manufacture of an axle. Most every part was stamped with a part number, but some were not. Those unmarked parts were thrown into a common bin.

When the bin was full, they brought over a line foreman named Adam. His name was appropriate because he had been there since the very beginning.

Surrounded by two or three guys, each of whom held a pen and a handful of inventory tags, Adam would go through the parts. He rolled each over in his hands for a second and rattled off the five-digit part number as someone hurriedly recorded the number and tagged the part. It was an ability that could only come from time on that job.

Back to the Heritage report. While it concedes that highly skilled feds generally do not get paid above the market rate, it finds issue with the fact that “the federal government generally pays employees in semi-skilled occupations very generously. This causes much of the average federal pay premium.”

Back to the axle plant.

Once I was operating a lathe that had to be manually disengaged at a specific moment to avoid ruining both the part I was making and the cutting edge. Problem was, I could not see the part through the scratched-up glass safety shield to judge when that moment was. I asked a passing boss what to do. He told me to peek around the side of the shield (where ribbons of steel flew out of the lathe, just missing one’s head, incidentally).

While I was operating the lathe in that precarious manner, an old, ready-to-retire machine operator (read “semi-skilled occupation”) saw me and came over. When I had finished cutting a piece, he shut off my lathe and cranked the cutter up to the spot where cutting had to end. He took a grease pencil and drew a short line overlapping the crank and the front of the machine. Then he cranked the cutter back out.

“Load the piece and stand over there where it’s safe,” he said. “When those two lines come back around and meet up, it’s time to shut off the lathe.”

So what about it? What price would you put on “time on the job” where you work?

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Jul 09, 2010 at 12:13 PM


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