Many people are attracted to work in the private sector, with expectations of greater opportunities for promotion, more variation in work and higher salaries. However, according to the Office for National Statistics, it may be that the oft-talked-of pay differential is actually in the opposite direction. Data from the ONS suggests that public sector workers are paid 14.5% more on average than those working in the private sector.
As is the case with the price of a good, the price of labour (that is, the wage rate) is determined by the forces of demand and supply. Many factors influence the wages that individuals are paid and traditional theory leads us to expect higher wages in sectors where there are many firms competing for labour. With the government acting as a monopsony employer, it has the power to force down wages below what we would expect to see in a perfectly competitive labour market. However, the ONS data suggests the opposite. What factors can explain this wage differential?
Jobs in the public sector, on average, require a higher degree of skills. There tend to be entry qualifications, such as possessing a university degree. While this is the case for many private-sector jobs as well, on average it is a greater requirement in the public sector. The skills required therefore help to push up the wages that public-sector workers can demand. Another explanation could be the size of public-sector employers, which allows them to offer higher wages. When the skills, location, job specifications etc. were taken into account, the 14.5% average hourly earnings differential declined to between just 2.2% and 3.1%, still in favour of public-sector workers. It then reversed to give private-sector workers the pay edge, once the size of the employer was taken out.
Further analysis of the data also showed that, while it may pay to be in the public sector when you’re starting out on your career, it pays to be in the private sector as you move up the career ladder. Workers in the bottom 5% of earners will do better in the public sector, while those in the top 5% of earners benefit from private-sector employment. The ONS said:
Looking at the top 5%, in the public sector earnings are greater than £31.49 per hour, while in the private sector, the top 5% earn more than £33.63 per hour… The top 1% of earners in the private sector, at more than £60.21 per hour, earns considerably more than the top 1% of earners in the public sector, at more than £49.65 per hour.
The data from the ONS thus suggest a reversal in the trend of average public-sector pay being higher than private sector pay, once all the relevant factors are taken into account.
This will naturally add to debates about living standards, which are likely to take on a stronger political slant as the next election approaches. It is obviously partly down to the public-sector pay freeze that we saw in 2010 and also to a reversal, at least in part, of the previous trend from 2008, where public-sector pay had been growing faster than private-sector pay. However, depending on the paper you read or the person you listen to, they will offer very different views as to who gets paid more. All you need to do in this case is look at the titles of the newspaper articles written by the Independent and The Telegraph! Whatever the explanation, these new data provide a wealth of information about relative prospects for pay for everyone.
Public and Private Sector Earnings Office for National Statistics (March 2014)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results Office for National Statistics (December 2013)
Austerity bites as private sector pay rises above the public sector for the first time since 2010 Independent, Ben Chu (10/3/14)
Public sector workers still better paid despite the cuts The Telegraph, John Bingham (10/3/14)
Public sector hourly pay outstrips private sector pay BBC News (10/3/14)
Public sector workers are biggest losers in UK’s post-recession earnings squeeze The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/3/14)
New figures go against right-wing claims that public sector workers are grossly overpaid Independent, Ben Chu (10/3/14)
Public sector pay sees biggest shrink on 2010, figures suggest LocalGov, Thomas Bridge (11/3/14)
Public sector staff £2.12 an hour better off The Scotsman, David Maddox (11/3/14)