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Too many public sector workers in Ontario?

Opponents of public services often try to portray the public sector as having grown disproportionately.  In fact, since 1976, the number of public sector employees has not quite kept pace with the population.

In 1976, the number of public sector employees in Ontario as reported by Statistics Canada averaged 830,800.  By 2012, the number had increased to 1,330,700 -- a 60.2% increase.  That sounds like significant growth -- true.

But the population has increased  from 8,413,779 in 1976 to 13,505,900 in 2012, a 60.5% increase.  

In other words, population growth has run slightly ahead of the growth in public sector employment.    
In 1976, close to 10% of the population worked in the public sector.  It stayed pretty much this way until the Mike Harris government came to power when it dipped below 9%.  It returned close to the historical range in the last six years or so, declining in 2012 to below the 1976 average.

This likely understates the decline in public service provided to the population.  Since 1976 average usual weekly hours have declined 5% in Ontario as part-time employment has grown more quickly than full time employment.  So the ratio of hours of public sector work relative to population will likely have declined more than the ratio of public sector employment to population.

The percentage of the population working in the public sector has also not kept pace with the increasing portion of the population working.  The percentage of the population working has increased from 44.5% of the population in 1976 to 50.2% in 2012, a very large increase.

With a slightly shrinking percentage of the population working in the public sector, the entire increase (and more) has been accounted for by an increase in the percentage working in the private sector (which saw an increase from 29.9% to 32.7% of the population) and by the increase in the percentage working self-employed (which saw an increase from 4.7% to 7.7% of the population).

With this, public sector employment has declined from 22.2% of all employment to 19.6%. So public sector workers are a significantly smaller portion of the total workforce.

So, a disproportionate public sector? Hardly.

Given the change in the balance of power between labour and corporations (in favour of the latter) since 1976, it is a credit to working people that public sector workers (and, by extension, public sector services) have fallen back only as far as we have. 

For a chart outlining this data click here. More on this in the next post, dated April 8.

Note: an earlier version of this article was based on incorrect population estimates for the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, making the decline in the ratio of public sector workers to population appear greater than it is.

Update: click here.


  1. Let's say I have a job with the Ontario government plowing the provincial highways of a region with a population of 10,000, they don't need to hire another 9 drivers if the population expands to 100,000 people. Your logic is flawed, and so is the Liberal Party of Ontario.

    1. Say you are an MTO employee doing license renewals - the population increase by 50,000 - the public wait time increases tremendously if no more staff are hired. Get rid of the layers at the top and leave the employees who directly serve the public alone

    2. Perhaps front line workers need to improve closer to population growth, but with the advent and benefit of technology we still don't need equal growth in services and population, with few exceptions. The gole of government, among others, is to create jobs in the free market, not to be an employment centre.

      We don't NEED so many public sector workers, all levels of government need to understand what can be afforded and what cannot. For every new $1 of spending, we have to consider deprioritizing existing programs.

    3. Why wouldn't you need 9 more drivers?
      90,000 more people means 1000% increase in infrastructure to support those people. That infrastructure needs to be maintained. If 1 driver tried to plow those additional roads, he'd be there 10 times as long. So if it snowed on friday your street may not get plowed for 2 weeks, instead of the next day. There are minimum maintenance standards that must be followed by municipalities, which are exactly what the name says, a minimum standard that the roads must be kept up to. My point is that without the 10% government employee to non ratio, the level of service that you have come to rely on will be severely diminished and the minimum maintenance standards would be violated.

    4. If there are no new roads, then you would be correct. However, a 10 fold population increase will undoubtedly cause and a 5 - 10 times increase in infrastructure. Do we need more teachers, garbage collectors, road maintenance people, bus drivers? Of course - you would have to be "pretty silly" to think otherwise.

  2. As a public servant I too am concerned when 1 in 5 people are employed by the government. The government does provide essential services but government employment in and of itself is not necessarily a wealth generator. Governments at all levels need to provide decent salaries and benefits to employees but really work on cutting out the red tap of a layered bureaucracy and focus on the essential services front line workers provide.

    1. Whoever you are. Thank you. YOU are the type of intelligent Ontarian we need so desperately right now. Please, keep spreading your reasonable perspective. What you said is fact, mathematically. It is the idea that public sector employees can come together and hold the province hostage which has put us in such financial peril.

      I would gladly consent as a free human being to paying you a decent salary and providing you with benefits. Because you can be trusted, thank you for keeping us citizens in mind.

  3. In response to the MTO license renewal example.....Do we not have perhaps better computer systems than say 1976 ? Every other industry has found a way to get by with less people but government seems to need more ?

    1. Absolutely, there should be significant efficiencies due to automation and computerization between 1976 and now. That is one of the main reasons to go through the pain and expense of implementing these systems.

      Also specific to the MTO example, has this entire function not been outsourced? I know the MTO scenario and I don't want to argue the overall point by picking apart the examples but it does bring the question of how contracting out should also have impacted the size of governement.

  4. Back to the math. Justifying the current size of the Ontario government because today we have the same ration as in 1976 is a flawed argument since there was no consideration made of efficiency improvements due to modern business systems and computers. There is no comparison between a 1976 white collar business to our current business model. Just look to the banking industry for a reference. I am not sure what the right number is, but the argument that it is correct because it matches our population growth is incorrect.

    1. I agree, the premise for this entire article is flawed. In my opinion it only points to the fact that the Ontario Government hasn't improved in efficiency even with the massive development of computer systems.

  5. the debate should be what is the best ratio of public to private sector workers in Ontario as the private sector pays for the salaries of public sector workers through taxes. All the money that public sector workers earn and spend is recycled tax money. It's a debate that will never garnish a true ratio as there are no free market forces in effect. The goal is to try to find efficiencies and get the ratio down to the lowest denominator. In the private school sector, the amount of schools, class size, as well as teachers (their salaries and qualifications) are dictated by the market ie: supply and demand. This rhetoric is pointless and is an affront to reason.

  6. out source and part time jobs.....that's what is happening every were else ....why should government workers get more rights then those PAYING for them to work??? SLASH government jobs lower taxes....

  7. How are the OPP and municipal police force catagorized? Are they considered as government workers in the posted chart?

    1. They are public sector employees, either provincial government, or municipal government employees. That should be reflected in the Stats Can data.


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