Know how to move from the public to the private sector

When George Osborne recently pledged to dramatically reduce the UK’s deficit within five years, he also announced the biggest cuts in public spending for almost a century, prompting many public sector professionals to consider moving to the private sector.

With even the most cautious forecasts estimating the loss of 300,000 public sector jobs and some placing this at well over a million, public sector employers are now not only faced with delivering painful cuts across their organisation, but also with securing their own future.

According to Steve Thompson-Martyn, a director at career transition consultancy CMC: “The good news for public sector HR professionals is that the vast majority have a wide range of transferable skills, highly sought after by the private sector, ranging from the ability to lead change to TUPE experience gained as part of the government’s rigorous outsourcing agenda.”

Cultural divide

 Thompson-Martyn says the divide between the two sectors is often overplayed. “Thanks to joint sector initiatives, the differences between the two sectors are far less than they used to be. The biggest change is the shift in pace, with deadlines set on a monthly or quarterly basis, instead of five-year cycles in the public sector, and the way decisions are often made on the fly, instead of by committee.”

Expert’s view: Steve Thompson-Martyn, director, CMC

What are the biggest challenges?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is accepting that it will take you about a year to get used to working to the different rules required by the private sector. Remember things are done to faster timescales and that, instead of working by committee, you’ll be working to the agenda of private shareholders and boards of directors.

What should you avoid doing?

Avoid chasing after jobs that you can do – focus on trying to find the sort of work that you want to do. As well as identifying your transferable skills, take time out to think about what you enjoy about your current role and what frustrates you, so that you can be very clear about your career path going forward.

Top tips

  • Network – Remember that most private sector jobs are never advertised and might only be created for you after you’ve approached the organisation. Build up a network of people in a position to recommend you to others and educate them about what you want to do going forward.
  • Negotiate – Public sector employment contracts typically include more flexible working arrangements and better benefits than the private sector. Although you might have had to accept a fixed pay band in the past, now you can negotiate for more – or less, in return for more flexibility.
  • Transition – Find someone you can use as a mentor and sounding board on things like reporting mechanisms, different levels of taking ownership, building relationships and the mindset of working in the private versus public sector.
Different rules also apply when it comes to finding employment. “Private sector recruitment is much less structured and works on a much more informal basis. Anyone wanting to switch into the private sector must be prepared to approach companies directly, conduct telephone interviews and network to find their next role, instead of relying on advertised positions alone,” says Thompson-Martyn.

In many cases, it can be helpful to talk to a career coach about how you can match your transferable skills to those required by the public sector, and about how to better showcase the excellent development you will have received, compared with your private sector peers.

Making the transition

Problems typically arise when someone makes too many changes at once. “Employees who move from the public to private sector and also switch from a large to small employer, or from working as part of a team to working alone as a consultant, will naturally find it much harder to make the adjustment than someone who broke up the transition with an interim role or two,” says Thompson-Martyn.

It’s also essential to make sure that any job offers fit in with your personal values first. “All too often, I come across individuals who spent their entire career in the public sector due to a genuine dedication to public service, then became miserable after accepting an offer to work with a friend at a company motivated by products and profits alone,” says Thompson-Martyn. “What they really needed for the transition to work was to find a company dedicated to outstanding customer service.”

In addition to carrying out research to make sure you only consider working for organisations that will make you happy, it’s also essential to know your own tolerance for risk. “Anyone considering switching sectors to avoid redundancy would be well advised to avoid other organisations dependent on government funding or contracts,” Thompson-Martyn says. “Also be wary of anyone wanting to employ you because they perceive you to have influence within the public sector. They will quickly become disillusioned when your influence doesn’t last once you come and work for them.”

If you only do five things

1. Understand your public sector achievements

2. Accept it will take time

3. Manage the transition

4. Know what type of company you want to work for

5. Change the way you look for work.

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