Moving from the public service to the private sector

Move from public service job to private sector

If you’re keen to make a career move from a government job to the private sector, what do you need to take into account when contemplating such a change? It helps to weigh up the pros and cons of making the transition against your overall career goals, and to be aware of some of the issues you may face in making the move.

In recent years, the number of public sector job opportunities has decreased. In addition, many employees have been made redundant as a result of public sector restructures, cuts and layoffs. As a result, there are many people wanting to move from the public sector to the private sector.

This can be a challenging transition. Many individuals struggle to overcome a range of obstacles. What are some of the major challenges public to private sector workers face, and how can you overcome these differences in cultures, processes and objectives?

A commercial focus

Public servants looking to switch to the private sector need to be flexible to adapt to a more commercial working culture. Profit seeking companies typically have a short term outlook, based on the commercial bottom line, compared to the longer-term approach of the public service. In the public sector, social values take precedence over commercial results; in the commercial sector, social outcomes are subordinate to commercial results. Profit is the key, and things move much faster.

Risk taking in the private sector is expected and encouraged. It can be a culture shock to move from the public service, with its multiple layers of gatekeepers and the prolonged decision-making, to a business orientated commercial organisation.

Of course employees in each sector can work long hours, while changes to priorities and work programs are typical for both. But the more dynamic private sector work environment can mean less flexibility. Senior roles in the private sector attract higher salaries, but this may impact work-life balance.

Different values

Until you have experience of both, it is difficult to understand the real and perceived differences between the two sectors. Be mindful of what you think the private sector is like. Speak to people within your network who work for a private company to get a better understanding of what’s involved. Assess whether you will fit in.

Rather than looking for a job in ‘the private sector’, view your search as looking for a job with a particular company. Like the public service, every private sector organisation is unique. Each has its own culture, and the work will vary accordingly. When job searching, identify what type of organisation you would like to work for, what values you are aligned to, what benefits are important to you etc. Then look for companies that match your objectives.

A stigma against public servants

You’re likely to come up against others’ assumptions about public servants. Unfortunately the myths about the public sector won’t go away. Workers from the sector are said to ‘have cushy conditions’ and thrive on ‘dull and repetitive work’. These untruths create a stigma that harm future job prospects, and encourage commercial employers to avoid hiring former public sector staff. The longer you’ve been a public servant, the harder you may find it to be accepted back into the faster-paced commercial world.

To increase your chances when job-seeking, you’ll need to demonstrate how your key skills are easily transferable. The public and private sectors share many similarities. For example, how you motivate a team is not sector-specific.

Sometimes we hear stories about incompetence in the public service, and these can influence employers’ opinions. Although there have been cases of poor management and decision making within the sector, private organisations aren’t strangers to errors of judgement either.

Salary expectations

You may think your skills and experience entitle you to a similar salary in the commercial world. The public sector, being more hierarchical and regulated, commonly bases rewards and pay scales on rank and tenure. However, in the more dynamic, growth-focussed private sector rewards are often based on initiative and outcomes, and demonstrated results. So you may need to overcome a mindset that you will have to gain some experience at a lower level before being elevated to a particular level of seniority – even if that’s the level you’re currently at.

Furthermore, salaries and severance payments are public in the public sectors as are contracts and summary performance evaluations. Don’t expect similar disclosure in the secretive world of the private sector.

A 2010 comparison of public to private sector salaries showed senior levels in private organisations have more capacity to earn higher salaries. Bear in mind that public servants typical receive generous employer super contributions. Most companies stick close to the minimum 9.25 per cent however you can increase this amount through salary sacrificing.

If you feel you deserve a certain salary level for the job you’re applying for, make a clear case for it based on the relevance and transferability of your skills and experience.

Summary

Be sure to review the pros and cons before deciding whether a public to private sector move is right for you. Remember that what works for one person may not work for another, so consider each option carefully. That said, there are many similarities between the two sectors.

Knowing what you want from your next job and the type of organisation you want to work for will make the transition much easier. If you have been made redundant and have access to outplacement support, talk to your consultant or career coach about developing a targeted job search plan.