Everybody is for high employment except, it seems, in the case of the public sector. Voters are primed to denounce “bloated bureaucracies” at the drop of a hat, making public employees a convenient target for politicians. Sometimes deservedly, sometimes not.

Of course politicians, reflecting their constituencies, are shrewd in their targeting of public employees … when was the last time you heard a compliant about a “bloated” Fire or Police Service?! Criticisms of the public sector usually relate to some underlying individual grievance, as in … we have too many consents officers, driving us crazy with unnecessary paperwork, or we have too few, causing unconscionable delays in processing the most routine applications!

No discussion of the “Other Economy” in Hawke’s Bay can be complete then, without a look at our public sector. And by “public sector” I’m referring to people whose wages are paid directly by taxpayers or ratepayers.

By that definition, would you believe that, in Hawke’s Bay, the public sector is the largest segment of the workforce? By my reckoning, fully 20% of the HB workforce – 15,051 people – are employed in the public sector.* That compares to the next two largest sectors – Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing, and Manufacturing – each at 14%.

Consider these three core categories that make up the public sector.

Government Administration & Defence – 2.2% of region’s workforce, 1,629 employees. Nobody would argue with that count. This is the hard core of the public sector. It includes all local personnel from your mayors to staff at Splash Planet. Fire and police services. It also includes the regional operatives of central government ministries – for example, ACC at 50 employees, NZ Transport at 15, Department of Corrections at 470, Department of Commerce at 42, Ministry of Justice at 80, Ministry of Fisheries at 17, and so on. And note, it does not include the army of lawyers, consultants and other contractors who supply services to local government.

Education – 7.9%, 5,878 employees. OK, it’s true, not every person in the education system is paid entirely with public money. For example, private tuition pays for some students and activities. And there are private sector skills training programs. But the fact remains, however broadly one defines education here in Hawke’s Bay, ultimately the vast majority of it – from public grammar schools to EIT – is being paid for by taxpayers.

Health & Community Services – 10.1%, 7,544 employees. Here again, not every provider of a health service is compensated with public funds. For example, most alternative practitioners, psychotherapists, fitness trainers, yoga instructors and others are paid from private pocketbooks. And other providers, like your GP, are paid from both public and private purses. Still, from surgeons at the DHB to general practitioners to our ubiquitous physios, the public-funded medical industrial complex is huge indeed.

How impervious this sector of the Hawke’s Bay economy is to major recession remains to be seen. My intuition says that most of these jobs fall in the “rather safe” category (though I’m sure this statement will draw some complaints!).

But even if one discounts my public sector total – say by 20% – for the privately-paid component of these services, we are still left with a public sector in the range of 16% of the Bay’s workforce. Whatever one thinks of the ultimate value or necessity of each and every service rendered, it cannot be disputed that the public sector is a major and stable anchor of our regional economy.

By comparison, we hear over and over how dependent our regional economy is on tourism, a sector subject to major fluctuations due to external factors, from exchange rates to swine flu, that is estimated to comprise about 10% of local GDP. One would almost have the impression that tourists are the lifeblood of our cafes, restaurants and shops.

Surely they play a significant role. But the next time you’re inclined to kick a public employee, consider that they might have a lot more to do with your own livelihood than your basic transient from Oz or Invercargill!

*Source: Hawke’s Bay Inc, Industry Projections Report

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