State braces for worker exodus

Despite consecutive years of across-the-board pay increases, North Carolina is struggling to attract and keep quality workers. Coming baby-boomer retirements will highlight gaps in pay and benefits between the state and private sectors, according to a N.C. Office of State Personnel report last week.

If the state doesn't keep up, government services will decline, economists and demographers say. To cope, the state might have to offer more pay and better benefits and try a more creative approach to recruiting.

“The private sector has an advantage, because it has deeper pockets,” said Jim Johnson, a UNC Chapel Hill business professor who studies the effects of demographic changes on the workplace. “If the gaps get too big, the private sector will just cherry-pick employees in areas that are hard to hire and the overall community suffers as a result.”

Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, knows that government workers are an easy target when complaints about taxes and service arise. He understandably disagrees with that view but said regardless of what people think, increasing the gap between private and public sector jobs won't solve anything.

“No matter where you are across the country, government and bureaucrats get a bad rap,” Cope said. “But our goal is still to provide quality service to taxpayers — and that costs money.”

More specifically, it costs about $11 billion a year to cover the salaries and benefits for about 120,000 state employees.

Taxpayers pay for a small army of field inspectors, office clerks, data processors, engineers, teachers and a host of other jobs. And those workers aren't getting any younger.

About 35 percent of the state's work force is older than 50. The average age since 1987 has jumped to 48 from 36.

The challenge of attracting younger workers is most obvious when the state competes for young college graduates, Cope said.

A private entry-level accountant job has an average salary of $46,070, the state personnel report says. Starting salary at the state level is $38,598.

The gap is similar for other jobs for new college graduates. An entry-level job as a personnel analyst for the state earns 35 percent less than a similar job in the private sector. A registered nurse earns 29 percent less. A social worker makes 15percent less.