State and local hiring has not recovered

July 5, 2012

Two prominent media outlets, USA Today and, have recently run stories that trumpet increased state and local government hiring. But both outlets make crucial errors in their calculations.

Let’s start with USA Today‘s story from June 27. Its analysis used the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey to claim that 800,000-plus new jobs had been created in muniland. But this number is a “turnover” number and not surprising since the sector employs over 19 million people.

Today ran a story that riffed on what USA Today reported and made this further claim:

More public workers were hired in the first four months of 2012 than any other year period since 2008. The 828,000 new hires are filling positions that were left open to save money during the recession. The hiring boost indicates that state budget problems have relaxed and that public-sector job growth could be imminent. It takes at least six months for a hiring boost to create a larger workforce, according to the newspaper.

In fact when you total up state and local government hires for the first four months of 2012, there were 1,084,000 new employees filling positions. But these are not new positions that have increased the overall level of state and local employment. These are hires replacing employees who left current positions. Total state and local employment is actually down year-over-year, from 19.3 million in May 2011 to 19.2 million in May 2012.

Muniland is scraping by, and a few small pockets of hiring are happening here and there. But it’s unlikely that a large surge in overall employment will occur until the general economy strengthens for a sustained period. Even in a strong economy, local and state governments may be reluctant to hire, since they wont be able to hide their pension liabilities anymore. The work is getting done: It’s just that government is having to stretch its resources to do it.


Tableau: State and local government employment data

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