I have a strange feeling as I work in the public sector at the end of 40 years and the uncertainty that a pension and a life without institutionalized work will bring. Even though I’m in the public sector, my pension could be a lot worse and will be index linked.
This will also prove my dear mother right 40 years ago when she told me that a job in the public service would give me a great pension. As an 18-year-old, I had no thoughts about pensions, job security or benevolent money. I got a job that allowed me to work hard, had flexible work patterns, and when I went home I could leave it all behind. I would go out a few pints with my friends and save up to buy a car, but only after my dear mother got her 50% off my wage package. I watched the McGuigan-Frampton court battle to see if I had any good reason for compensation after all these years. However, I would prefer to be fair against Frampton than against my mother.
Over the past 40 years I’ve seen big changes in the public sector. It has had its ups and downs. In the 1980s, we seemed to be at the forefront of any direct rule initiative, some positive and others that seemed to put us in the legitimate audience. It was no accident that significant public service offices were relocated to the city centers of Belfast and Derry. The main reason was economic, but some of us suspected a second motive to prevent bomb attacks. It didn’t work of course and resulted in officers spending more time in pubs than was good for us while scared of the bombs. I also remember that at work we always had something to celebrate, mostly births and marriages, sometimes in that order, 21st birthday parties, etc., we had a young and very lively workforce.
I remember running into friends in the 1990s who left school with two CSEs and made twice as much money as me, and some who also applied for unemployment benefits. At that point I was married, had a couple of kids, a massive mortgage, and the public sector trap was over.
The naughty brought their problems and challenges, and the results of Cameron / Osbourne economic policies would change the public sector forever. The number of employees was reduced and there was no recruitment.
In addition to being the largest employer in Northern Ireland, the public sector is also the largest single sector. The last time I checked NICS they didn’t have anyone under the age of 25. The working groups we have now, albeit through Zoom, are retirement parties. Gone are the young, vibrant civil service, we are older, we bear the wounds of war and we are fully institutionalized. To say we are risk averse would be an understatement. We are largely there to implement the guidelines and wishes of local politicians, to drive vanity projects forward, and to bear the blame when they go wrong.
The Voluntary Exit Scheme, as introduced by the NI executive, was a big nail in the public sector coffin. It was not implemented according to good business principles, it was purely a cost saving and those who were cheapest were fired. The lasting effect is that it was not the person who was laid off, but their position and funding for that position, so that we could not hire or fill positions. In some industries the workforce was reduced by 30%.
More recently, there has been a focus on NICS sickness and attendance records. One of the main benefits of working in the public sector is paid sick leave. There is no doubt that a minority is abusing this and the existing processes make it difficult for managers to tackle this without ending up in labor tribunal. However, due to the profile of the workforce, the system is now completely unbalanced. The young, vibrant workforce is now in our fifties and we are all the age at which we are more susceptible to disease. This increases the perceived level of illness. Illnesses often require more medical intervention and take longer to recover. The 6 month full pay policy ensures mortgages and other bills are paid.
In addition, the public sector has rightly always employed a large percentage of women in its workforce. The north and south of Ireland are a caring bunch. Most of these caring responsibilities, however, lie with the women in our society. Whether it is elderly people in need of care or in need of care, it is usually up to the women in the family to commit and care for older relatives. If this female family member works in the public sector, it is always more likely to do so. “Sure, our Jinny can take care of Grandma when she comes out of the hospital, she can get sick and get paid.” Two employees are currently sick because they have to look after elderly relatives. At first sight this is a public sector problem, but I do not think it is a social problem. I am sure that more people reading this have experienced the “female caregiver” scenario. It is one that social services recognize without being flooded, it is one that hospitals recognize if without that care they had bed blockers again throughout the system. It’s also one that most families recognize.
This is mostly made up for by people like me who are rarely sick for more than a few days and who are involved in swings and roundabouts.
The public sector is vital to Northern Ireland, but it needs new blood, new and added liveliness. The problem of caregivers and sick leave needs to be addressed. However, this needs to be done with understanding and understanding, as caring should be nurtured and supported, by society and not just by the public sector.
In a few days, none of the above will be problems for me as a manager. I see retirement as an opportunity; Maybe my mother can offer advice for my next 40 years.
The photo by mwitt1337 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA
This is a guest slot to provide a platform for new writers, either as a standalone piece or as a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.