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Public-sector Employment and Wage Trends

Factsheet: Public-sector Employment and Wage Trends

Key Takeaways 

  • The share of public-sector employment in total employment has been relatively stable once reclassification effects are taken into account. In 2023 around 17% of the total workforce worked in the public sector. With NHS employment rising, the share of central government employment in public-sector employment is on the increase. 
  • Since mid-2021 average weekly earnings have been higher in the private than in the public sector. Since the beginning of the century this has only otherwise been the case in 2000. Moreover, there has been a compression of pay within the public sector. Historically average weekly earnings have been higher in the public than in the private sector as educational attainment and skills are generally higher in the former. 
  • Between mid-2021 and mid-2023 public-sector real wage growth was negative, with the result that real average weekly earnings have still not returned to pre-Covid levels. By contrast, real average weekly earnings in the private sector have been higher than pre-Covid with the exception of the furlough period in 2020. 

The share of public-sector employment in total UK employment dropped from 22% in 2010 to around 16.5% in 2018 and has since only gradually increased again. In absolute numbers public-sector employment was – at 5.9m – around 560,000 lower in 2023 than in 2010. 

However, these headline changes reflect more sectoral reclassifications than actual trends. Among other reclassification changes, Further Education and Sixth Form College corporations in England were included in the public sector before mid-20212 but have been included in the private sector since then. Going the other way, Lloyds Banking Group plc and Royal Mail plc were reclassified from the public to the private sector at the end 2013. Once these reclassification changes are taken into account, the drop in the share of public-sector employment in total employment was much more modest and public-sector employment was in fact marginally higher in absolute terms in 2023 than in 2012. 

The share of public-sector employment in total employment varies considerably across the regions of the UK. In 2023, in the East and South East only 15% of the total workforce was employed in the public sector. This contrasts with 26% in Northern Ireland. 

Within the public sector, central government is taking an ever larger employment share, rising from 44% in 2010 to 62% in 2023. Both local government and public corporations saw declines in their shares over that period. 

Much of this can be explained by the rapid rise in NHS employment, which went from 1.6m in 2010 to 2m in 2023. By contrast, employment in the civil service and in education remained reasonably stable over that period.

Average weekly earnings in the private sector dropped sharply at the onset of the Covid pandemic in early-2020 when many workers were moved to the government’s furlough employment support scheme. Average weekly earnings recovered quickly though and with the exception of March 2021 (when bonus pay was below trend) has seen steady growth since. 

By contrast, average weekly earnings in the public sector continued to grow during the first year of the Covid pandemic but then trended sideways until early-2023. Since then it has grown more or less in line with private-sector earnings (the spike in June 2023 reflects the one-off bonus payment to NHS workers). 

Notably, as a result of these diverging trends, average weekly earnings in the private sector have been higher than in the public sector since mid-2021. 

This contrasts with the long-term trend. In the 290 months between January 2000 and February 2024, average weekly earnings in the private sector were higher than in the public sector in only 49 of them (16%) – 30 of which since mid-2021. The last time average weekly earnings in the private sector were higher than in the public sector over several consecutive months was in 2000. 

According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, several professions in the public sector including nurses but in particular teachers and hospital doctors have experienced much worse pay growth than the average public-sector worker. This reflects a (deliberate) compression of public-sector pay within and across professions. This contrasts with developments in the private sector over the same period. Historically average pay in the public sector has been higher than in the private sector as the average level of educational attainment and skills is higher in the former than in the latter. 

With consumer price inflation accelerating from early-2021 onwards (taking annual CPIH from 0.8% in December 2020 to a peak of 9.6% in October 2022), moderate nominal average weekly earnings growth initially turned into modest real growth and then negative real growth. This was particularly notable in the public sector: in the 24 months between July 2021 and June 2023, real average weekly earnings growth was negative in 22 of them. In the private sector this was the case in 14 out of those 24 months. 

As a result (and ignoring the one-off spike in June 2023), real average weekly earnings in the public sector were well below their pre-Covid level between mid-2022 and late-2023 and are only now close to pre-pandemic levels. This contrasts with developments in the private sector, where real wages have been higher than pre-Covid since the end of the furlough period. 

Public-sector pay accounts for a large part of the public-sector spending and as such plays an important role in the financial stability of local governments and other public-sector bodies. Recent earnings trends show a compression of public-sector pay within and across professions, with the result that public-sector average weekly earnings have fallen behind those in the private sector. This suggests that public-sector wages in general and for certain professions in particular face significant upward pressure, potentially straining public-sector budgets even further.  

If you would like to discuss what insights and lessons you could take away from recent public-sector and private-sector employment and wage trends, please talk to us.  

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