Monday, February 23, 2015

Public Sector Compensation - You Get What You Pay for

Today I am going to provide a bit of a change of pace from my normal postings. Up until now I have written primarily on the topics of renewable energy and climate change. A glance at my earliest postings shows that I started my blogging talking about pipelines. What most of my readers don't know is that the event that actually pulled me out of my shell and into talking about science on the public stage was the Mount Polley Tailings pond failure. For those of you not familiar with the event, in August 2014 the tailings pond dam for Imperial Mine's Mount Polley Copper and Gold Mine had a partial breach releasing 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of slurry into Polley Lake. At the time I made some comments on Twitter. As an interested outsider (with no conflicts of interest involving the project, but a knowledge of the field of contaminated sites) I was subsequently interviewed a few times by a local news radio station about how the spill might affect the local ecology and clean-up options. After the spill a number of reports came out passing around blame for the disaster. One repeated complaint was the lack of inspections and mine inspection staff.

The number and quality of inspectors/regulators is always a matter of concern in the environmental and natural resource fields. Consider our mine inspectors, in a perfect world we would have a surplus of mine inspectors. Moreover, our mine inspectors would be old hands from the mining field. They would have years of mining experience, know their way around a mine and would know where the mine operators typically hide the skeletons. Unfortunately for us, we do not live in a perfect world. The mine inspector described above is no longer the norm in the public sector of 2015. Certainly our regulators have a lot of old hands who were hired in an earlier era and have the knowledge, skills and experience to get the job done, but these days they represent the last of a dying breed. One important reason for this is the rate of compensation for the technical staff in the bureaucracies of 2015.

Now public sector compensation is an incredibly hot-button subject. Last summer when the BC Public Sector Compensation Review came out it was headline news. I couldn’t turn on the TV or listen to the radio without hearing the representative from the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation declaring that public sector compensation packages represented an outrage. The reality is somewhat different, it is true that some public sector employees do better than their compatriots in the private sector but some do considerably worse. Before I go much further let’s make some simple stipulations to speed things up: 

  • No one can deny that in the lower-skilled positions, public sector workers are often paid at a better rate than they would for doing the same work in the private sector.
  • No one can deny that at the top end in the public sector (and crown corporations) senior management are paid at a comparable rate to the private sector with less risk of firing or a need to be accountable to shareholder value.
  • It is well-understood that public sector workers also have very generous benefits/retirement packages that we’ve been repeatedly told increases their equivalent salary by on average 15%.
  • Finally, based on news reports, some political appointees have received insane-sounding salaries.
Now that we have addressed the red herrings, let’s talk about the topic of this post: highly-trained technical specialists, the people we depend on to ensure our bridges don’t collapse, to keep our water clean and our mines tailings dams from breaching.

Let’s start with the big picture, consider the BCGov salary comparisons chart. It presents the maximum salaries based on responsibilities and bargaining unit for various job classifications. If you happen to know someone in the public service, who you believe earns more than $75,000, you can also look them up on the Vancouver Sun Public Sector Salaries database. At first glance some of those salaries look pretty good, until you look into what the jobs classifications actually mean. Take a look at the classification plan for Licensed Science Officers (LSOs), it tells you what it takes to qualify as an LSO 1 versus an LSO 2etc.. For comparison now consider that the Association of Professional Engineers of British Columbia (APEG BC) annual salary survey which, too, comes with a job classification chart of its own. 

As an exercise for this post, I opened up the BC Government Directory and went to the Ministry of Energy and Mines and searched for a Mining Operations Office, in this case I chose Prince George as that is a pretty important town for mining. I then worked my way down the list I found there. I looked at the Regional Geologist, the Senior Reclamation Officer, the Manager - Geotechnical Engineering, the Senior Inspector of Mines-Permitting, and an Inspector of Mines – Permitting. Except for the last employee, I then compared the employee’s salary from the Vancouver Sun database with the APEG BC salary results for Engineers and Geologists with my best estimate for the same level of experience and responsibility. The result was that in every case the public servant was paid in either the lowest quartile (lowest 25% of APEG members with that classification) or lowest decile (lowest 10% of APEG members with that classification). The final employee (the inspector) didn’t actually make the $75,000 barrier? I would also point out that the salaries presented on the BC Gov chart represent a maximum. A Licensed Science Officer 5 (LSO 5) starts at $67,809.74 and only makes it to the maximum salary of $88,420.29 after the appropriate time in the public service. Regardless of your outside experience, you start at the bottom of the range for your position. 

Having looked at existing employees I then did a search of current job postings and found one for a Bridge Engineer. In the job posting they are asking for someone with: 

a university degree in Engineering, majoring in Structural Engineering supplemented by at least nine years of progressively more responsible experience in Bridge and Structural Engineering or a related field, with at least five years preferred directly working in position(s) dealing with Bridge and Structural Design and/or Construction, and several of those in an environment involving transportation infrastructure or an equivalent combination of education and experience may be considered.”  

For someone with those challenging technical and professional qualifications they are offering the princely sum of $67,809.74 with a potential to work up to $88,420.29. But wait there is more, because the job is in a hard-to-find bracket they are offering a 4.4% salary bump. Pretty rich right? Based on the APEG BC chart this level of experience would appear to be in the 450 - 499 point range. Engineers in BC with responsibilities in the 450- 499 point range have a median salary of $101,000 with the bottom decile being $80,000. So an engineer with the called-for experience wouldn’t even reach the bottom decile cut-off for Engineers in the field for many years after accepting the job? Can you imagine any engineer with almost 10 years experience and the specialization described taking that sort of pay cut to work in the public sector? Is there any doubt why they had to extend the closing date for this posting and have included the following text: “Applicants who do not fully meet the required qualifications may be considered for this position, but at a lower classification”?

Having looked at the numbers let’s return to the point of this post. We depend on our regulators to ensure that provincial environmental and mining regulations are followed. These are the people who we depend on to protect the public's (our) interests. Instead of offering these highly-trained and skilled professionals a salary commensurate with their responsibilities we are offering them salaries that put them amongst the lowest paid of their peer group in the province. It is hard to complain about the level of expertise and knowledge in the public sector when we pay them so little after all you get what you are willing to pay for. The confusing part is that our provincial government keeps insisting that we have to pay upper-level managers and political appointees a salary equivalent to the ones they could earn in the private sector in order to ensure we get the best people for the jobs? It is a pity they don't feel the same way when it comes to the technical specialists our politicians rely on to ensure the protection of the public interest and to provide the scientific expertise necessary to run our government. Moreover, it goes farther than just salaries, but I don’t have time to go into the other issues I have uncovered in my research for this post, including work-load issues for existing employees; unwillingness to replace retirees; and union work rules that limit who can be hired to do various jobs. That will have to be the source of a future post.

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