Understanding Spanish Public Workers: Funcionarios

Dear Gabby,

If you are in Spain for any period of time and have to go through any sort of bureaucratic process, I am sure you will hear the word ‘funcionario(s)’ and, if you dig deeper into this subject or have Spanish friends at university, you will probably hear the word ‘oposiciones’ connected to it. Now, I wouldn’t blame you at all if you didn’t know what these words mean and you asked me “What are oposiciones and funcionarios?” As neither of these terms conceptualize something that is common in the States, I find that understanding and being able to explain these words and their meaning to be difficult. At their most basic level, they are the entrance exam for (oposiciones) and the position of public workers in Spain (funcionarios). However, I would like to dive a bit deeper into this subject with you today as I honestly feel that by understanding how this system works can help you understand other aspects of Spanish culture.

Note: As it is quite a dense idea, today we are staying with funcionarios but you can find the post on oposiciones here.

Firefighters are  funcionarios  too.

Firefighters are funcionarios too.

What are Funcionarios?

Like I said, funcionarios are public workers in Spain. They will be the people who do everything from clean your street to decide if you have enough reason to be in the country to approve your visa. Funcionarios work in the universities, hospitals, offices, etc. and have a really important role in everyday Spanish life. I would go as far to say that the jobs they do are essential for how the system works here and, in fact, without funcionarios, it would probably fall apart.

At the same time, the work they do is highly criticized by people who want to get help from the office or department where funcionarios are. Public workers as seen as people who, once they are part of the system, don’t want to learn more or improve on what is already established. It is considered that funcionarios only do the very specific job that is assigned to them and that if, for example in an office, you don’t have all the paper to fulfill that process, they will tell you to leave and come back another day when you have what they are looking for. There are also jokes about funcionarios going for coffee as soon as they arrive to the office.

However, I have personally worked and interacted with a large number of funcionarios in my time in Spain and, while you can find people who don’t care about the job they are doing, many times you will also find someone who will go out of their way to help others. I know teachers who dedicate themselves to their jobs and are constantly looking for ways to improve and I know administrative workers who do everything they can to make everyone’s life easier around them—even at a cost to themselves.

Note: I personally have a complicated relationship with the idea and system of funcionarios, but I still want to recognize the work that they do and appreciate many individuals who do their job excellently. The next section is completely subjective and not objective at all.

What does this mean for workers and youth?

Although I personally don’t find the job of a funcionario to be appealing, it is something that is the back of the minds of most Spanish youth and even for people who have jobs. That is because, although they might not be super interesting positions, the Spanish government guarantees that funcionarios have good pay, good health insurance, a decent amount of yearly holiday, etc. In a country that in the last century suffered a civil war, a dictatorship, a (re)transformation to a democratic system, and the current political situation (which is complicated to say the least and getting more complex as time goes by), I can understand that people want stability in their work life. As a funcionario, you don’t have to worry about receiving a paycheck or a pension and you get to count on having annual leave, relatively high standing within the community, etc.

Sometimes I feel like my friends would rather force themselves to learn from a book rather than experience the world.

Sometimes I feel like my friends would rather force themselves to learn from a book rather than experience the world.

On the flip side, I find that only about half of the public workers that I have come across (if that), are actually happy and efficient in their jobs. It is not uncommon to see people become complacent and just do the bare minimum to get by. Now I know that there are plenty of people who work really hard on constant improvement, but the general stereotype is that you study for the exam and once you pass, it is a free ride. From my perspective, this has a massive impact the youth population.

Many of my under 35 friends (and even friends older than that) truly believe that studying oposiciones and becoming a funcionario is the best option for them in life. They work really hard to get enough experience—points—and study their butts off to get into the system. At the same time, I see people studying for jobs that I don’t really think fit them just because it means they will like the hours and the paycheck they will receive. It means that they lose time that I consider precious studying for an exam instead of exploring the options they have around them. At the same time, it fits into what they have been taught as a ‘normal’ way of looking at life (working to live, not living to work) and makes many people very happy.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave them down below and we will do our best to answer them for you.