Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In Defense of the State Worker*

I'd like to talk a little bit about branding. Not the practice of applying a red-hot iron to a steer’s hindquarters, but the attempt to indelibly connect an idea to a product.

Corporations spend millions in marketing revenue in an attempt to attach a positive idea to their offering that speaks to the desired demographic. Sometimes, however, the idea that sticks into the consumer’s mind is negative. Wal-Mart, for example, wants to be seen as a good and thrifty neighbor, but for many people, they are a bullying and selfish presence.

An article in this week’s New York Times Magazine is about how some people are applying the corporate concept of branding to their lives in an attempt to make themselves marketable. While the young hipsters profiled in the article are making a conscious effort to brand their lifestyle, other folks have one bestowed upon them. In Springfield, there is no stronger brand, either for a person or a product, than the state worker.

For as many years as I can remember, the idea most frequently associated with a state worker was that of a politically-connected layabout, coasting his way towards a handsome pension and only breaking a sweat during election years. This perception manifest itself from what non-state workers considered all too familiar scenes: a five-man maintenance crew with only one broom, a lanyard-wearing crowd at Boone’s Saloon on an early Friday afternoon (or Wednesday, or Monday), a state vehicle filled with a family of four on their way to the lake.

In recent years, wage freezes and massive layoffs have lead to a more aggressive effort by the unions and merit comp employees to paint a different idea in the public’s minds: the state worker as an over-worked, under-appreciated laborer struggling to keep up with the cost of living. This particular branding campaign isn’t working, but the one that paints all state workers as lazy nepotists isn’t entirely accurate either.

I spent three years working for the state before returning to the private sector. What I found during my brief tenure, at least among the people that I worked with directly, was that my co-workers were intelligent, decent people who carried out their jobs efficiently. If any of them ducked out early and headed over to Boones, they didn’t invite me.

But what sometimes hampered the work of these fine people and cast a pall over the entire working environment was a stunning lack of morale. This dearth of esprit de corps, although certainly attributable in part to the wage freeze, has a much more unlikely cause.

Because of the way that jobs are classified and favors handed out, after ten years in the state’s employ the average worker has risen in the ranks about as far as they can go. This is, of course, unless they want to hitch-on to the wagon of a particular political candidate, but to do that is to also risk being run over by the wagon once it starts heading back down the hill.

So what you have then is a bunch of people settled into jobs that no longer challenge them. With no mountains left to climb or fortunes to shoot for, they grow listless. Time to move on, one would think, to new and better things. But many fail to do so because of the one carrot left dangling before them: their pension.

After eight years, a state employee is fully-vested into the state’s retirement system. While a pension is meant as a reward for a lifetime of service, it also serves as a yoke to keep an employee slumping down the path towards retirement. Rather than sacrifice their pension, many state workers stay in an unfulfilling job that eventually crushes their spirit.

This is, of course, a general assessment based on my personal observations. There are state workers who have been doing the same job for the past thirty years with a vim that would make Mary Poppins seem like Roseanne Barr with a hangover. On the other hand, there are workers who have risen to the rank of Grand Master in Tetris while suckling from the state’s teat. But most fall into a middle category. They don’t need to be branded. But if you mess with their pensions, they’ll need to be restrained.

*or: A Shameless Attempt to Win the State Worker Vote in the Illinois Times’ Best of Springfield Contest.


Russ said...

Nice try Dan, cozying up to half the town with a single post.

If you win, you have to throw a party you know.

// Vote Springfield Rewind - "Best Way to Milk a Butter Cow"! //

Anonymous said...


I think you got it right. Great post!

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

Thanks Anon.

Russ. If you demonstrate how to milk the butter cow during the fair, especially if you don't get permission first, then I'll throw my support for best blogger to Springfield Rewind. You don't even have to have a party if you win.

Thanks for commenting,

UMRBlog said...


Having worked in State Government, been employed in the private sector and been an employer, my take on this whole topic is that there are an equal number of unproductive and malcontented workers in private and public life at any given time. Their names may change a little less frequently in government (due process and all that) but the percentages don't.

Good topic, even if you do get 15 yards and loss of down for sucking up!

Russ said...

I have no chance of winning, Dan. Even my wife voted for you. But with a dizzying array of Ninja skills, I will milk that creamy cow.