During the ongoing debate about county payroll policies, some elected officials have been reporting, with mock alarm, that the average wage of a county worker is higher than the average wage for all workers in Miami-Dade County.
This propaganda is not only divisive; this message undermines a core maxim of our American society: higher education increases one’s earning potential. We invest in education, hoping for greater lifetime earnings. Why do county workers earn more, on average? The short answer: educational achievements.
In Miami-Dade County, the field of public administration has the highest percentage of workers with an associate degree or some level of college education compared to all other categories of employment. As the U.S. Census data reveal, more than 25 percent of the public-sector workforce in our county has earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s or doctorate. Public-sector positions often require specific levels of education.
While 20.9 percent of the entire workforce has less than a high school education, there are few government jobs in Miami-Dade County available to these individuals. The county has more than 2,000 classified positions. Only a handful of these positions are open to workers who have not graduated high school or earned an equivalency certificate. This educational-bias by the county is intentional.
Since 1957, when Dade County voters approved the Home Rule Charter, this community has insisted upon professional government service. The charter declares the “personnel system of the county shall be based on merit principles in order to foster effective career service in county employment and to employ those persons best qualified for county services which they are to perform.” A merit system relies primarily on educational achievement to select employees for career service. Factors like experience, character and skills are also carefully evaluated.
The Miami-Dade Police and Fire Rescue departments are national standard-bearers for professionalism in public safety. Building inspectors and plans evaluators are qualified experts in their fields. Trained scientists protect our environment, and skilled engineers manage our water supply. The medical examiner employs a staff of highly specialized forensic investigators. Accountants and financial managers are responsible for a vast array of public funds. County doctors and nurses provide the best trauma services in the nation.
To defend the metropolitan government from lawsuits, the county has an extremely capable “in-house” civil law firm. These lawyers are specialists in a wide range of areas, including commercial and construction litigation, municipal finance and medical malpractice. When nationally recognized law firms sue Miami-Dade, the county’s lawyers aggressively defend the public’s treasury.
Clearly, it is in the best interest of every citizen to have an educated, competent and responsible county workforce. Efficient government requires skilled workers. It is counterproductive to diminish the worth of public-sector employees, and contrary to the values of society to deny the economic benefits of an education.
The average wages for all workers in our community, among individuals 25 years and older, is $4,099 a month. It stands to reason that county government employees, whose ranks reveal above-average educational achievements, might earn more than the average wages for the entire workforce. This information should not alarm anyone who values an education.
In our exile-immigrant community, getting an education is considered paramount. When many of our neighbors landed here, their only valuable possession was their education. New arrivals to this country are acutely aware that an education makes all the difference. It explains why struggling families, particularly in South Florida, quietly make tremendous sacrifices to see their children educated.
When a student graduates, if they are called to the public service, their academic achievements should not be discredited.
This reckless broadside by politicians against county employees — for essentially achieving higher educational goals — undermines the value of education for everyone.
Achieving higher levels of education should result in higher earnings, even for those individuals who choose a career in the public sector.
Terry Murphy is an adjunct professor in the School of Public Administration at FIU. He is also a government-relations consultant in Miami whose clients include public-employee unions.