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Public sector employment at its lowest in two decades, according to Wisconsin Policy Forum

Researcher says policymakers should ensure services are meeting citizen’s needs

A Kenosha police car blocks traffic
*Hajee. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The number of teachers, police officers and other public sector employees in Wisconsin is at its lowest in two decades, according to a recent report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

In 2021, there were just under 277,800 full-time employees in Wisconsin’s state and local governments and school districts.

Ari Brown, senior research associate at the Policy Forum who authored this report, said fewer people are being hired — especially at the local level — because local governments are short on revenue.

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Fewer government and school district employees, however, means public services should analyze if the needs of citizens are being met, Brown said.

“For parks and recreation, do we have public parks that are sufficient to meet the needs of citizens who want to access those spaces?” Brown said. “Do we have enough librarians and other support staff to keep libraries open to the extent that residents want to see them open?”

Average pay for Wisconsin’s public sector employees is also at its lowest on a per capita basis since 2002.

Local governments’ revenue has been negatively affected because they can’t raise their property taxes to keep up with inflation and they’ve received a stagnant amount of state aid over time.

That means school districts and other local governments have less money, Brown said, so they’re hiring fewer employees and limiting salaries for current workers.

At the same time, unemployment is at record lows in the state, creating a more competitive job market and causing people to place a greater weight on salary when they’re choosing a job. Brown said that means some workers are leaving the public sector because they can get paid significantly more for a job in the private sector — especially when it’s a job that requires similar skills to their former role.

Steve Stanczak, director of human resources for the City of Kenosha, said job loyalty and security no longer give public sector jobs an advantage over those in the private sector. Police officer positions in Kenosha that would draw 600-800 applicants about a decade ago are now only receiving about 160 applicants, he said. And firefighter positions that would receive an average of 300-500 applicants a year are now getting about 150-175. He said the decline is largely because people are looking elsewhere for jobs with higher salaries.

Stanczak said Kenosha’s population has grown significantly as people move from Illinois to Kenosha because there is more affordable housing in the city. However, instead of finding a new job in Kenosha once they relocate, people tend to keep the jobs they have in Illinois due to the higher salaries.

Within Wisconsin’s K-12 public schools, enrollment is declining, as well as the number of education employees, because more students are being homeschooled or are transferring to private schools, Brown said.

Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said in some school districts, the issue of having fewer teachers is offset because there are fewer students. Typically, though, fewer teachers means there are bigger class sizes for students and more pressure on instructors.

“They’re not able to have as much planning time,” Rossmiller said.

Superintendent for the Blair-Taylor School District, Jeff Eide, said the number of applicants for teaching roles is now “much smaller.” Every position has eventually filled, Eide said, even though the process to occupy those jobs have been more difficult in recent years.

“In the end, truly it’s just important to make sure that you’re fully staffed,” Eide said, “and looking for staff that will fulfill students’ needs.”

Brown said policymakers should monitor their staffing levels and employee salaries across all public sector departments, though, to ensure they are accommodating for the demand that citizens and communities have for their services.

“The pandemic is definitely a big cause here, but this is something that’s been happening over the course of the 21st century,” Brown said about the decline in public sector employees. “(These are) various public services that not only individuals expect, but that state and local governments have provided for decades and decades.”