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Public sector benefiting in tough times
Decent pay, job security makes it attractive in uneasy economy
By Bob Susnjara | Daily Herald Staff

Despite making less money, Dann Giesey says he's glad he left private business to join the public sector as director of information technology at Woodland Elementary District in Gurnee.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Dann Giesey, as director of information technology at Woodland Elementary District in Gurnee, doesn't have to worry about his employer moving. Experts say that's part of the public sector attraction.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/2/2008 12:06 AM

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Like many people, Dann Giesey is making less money than this time last year.

But for Giesey, the lower salary is his choice.

In February, Giesey left his technology chief job at Klein Tools to become the director of technology at Woodland Elementary District 50 in Gurnee. He says his new job offered things more valuable than a larger paycheck: stability in a school system that won't be moving operations and helping in the education of children.

"You make a difference in the corporate world, but it's measured by dollars and by sales," said Giesey, 44, of Crystal Lake.

He's not alone in his thinking, jobs experts say. As the nation's economy continues to suffer, schools, villages and other areas of the public sector are being viewed as good places to work with traditional pensions and lower-cost health-care benefits making up for what can be reduced annual salaries.

That public-sector interest is backed up by national employment trends charted by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2007, the most recent available.

"Manufacturing continued its long-term retraction," states the April report from the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, "while health care, professional and technical vices, food services and drinking places and local government continued to expand."

Chicago-based John Challenger said he's advising out-of-work clients to consider the public sector when they visit his nationally known outplacement company. The head of Challenger, Gray & Christmas said it's all about stability, not a fat paycheck and stock options.

"From a career standpoint, it's a lot different (today) than when you're in a job-seekers' market," Challenger said.

Gail Rogers, acting human resources leader in Naperville, said she can see how public-sector jobs are more attractive in a slumping economy. She said those who stay put in a local government job can derive much satisfaction from a better work-life balance and leave behind some of the worries seen at private companies.

"We won't be relocating out of state," Rogers joked.

Relocation wasn't an issue for Giesey when he thought he had landed his dream position at Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago as director of technology in 1998. That changed when Wilson transferred all corporate functions to Finland in 2003.

After landing at Klein Tools Inc. in Lincolnshire in 2003, Giesey took a side job three years later coaching varsity baseball at Johnsburg High School. His experience at the high school stoked his desire to be involved in education full time, which is why the $116,000-a-year Woodland technology director job appealed to him.

While $116,000 is an attractive salary by many measures, Giesey said a comparable information technology position would pay $130,000 to $150,000 in the private sector. But he said a traditional pension and reduced health-benefit costs were financial pluses about joining the school district.

Giesey said he was prepared to sell himself in his interview because he knew Woodland administrators might be curious why he wanted to work there for pay less than the typical industry standard. "That was one of the first things I addressed," he said. "They didn't ask me."

Meanwhile, some local governments report receiving higher-than-expected responses for jobs that would have been tepid a few years ago.

St. Charles Unit District 303 received about 50 applicants this year for maintenance manager, which Brian Harris, assistant superintendent for human resources, said was at least 30 more than projected.

Gurnee officials took notice when 350 applications were received for a police records clerk position late last year. They said about 50 would have been more like what they expected.

Anne Edmunds, regional director for Manpower in Illinois, said some of the public-sector interest is coming from younger applicants who want a better chance to work 9 to 5.

"What we're seeing is the people right out of college really value the work-life balance," Edmunds said.

To be sure, government jobs are not immune to cutbacks or other financial stresses that come in a shaky economy.

In Batavia, rolling unpaid furloughs were approved early this year for employees at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory because of budget cuts authorized by Congress. The village of Hawthorn Woods laid off six employees and slashed expenses in a second round of budget cuts to reduce a $750,000 budget deficit.

But for the most part, the public sector is considered safe and stable. Whether that's what employees want when the economy improves remains to be seen.

Challenger said it's likely some workers will get the itch to seek greater riches in private business because stability isn't viewed as important when another job is around the corner.

Ken McDonnell, program director for the Washington, D.C.-based Employee Benefit Research Institute, said solid basics such as pensions and lower-cost comprehensive medical coverage tend to become forgotten when times are good.

"When the economy is booming and everybody is going, 'Woo, look at my stock options,' they look down on state and local employees," said McDonnell, whose nonprofit, nonpartisan organization studies economic security issues and benefits.

Giesey said he doesn't think many tech employees will be willing to jump from the public sector back to private business after the economy rebounds.

"More and more tech professionals are looking for long-term stability and security," he said.