Changing careers: how to move from the public to the private sector


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Working in the public sector no longer means a job for life - if it ever did.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently published research indicating that George Osborne's austerity plans are creating the biggest cut in public sector jobs for fifty years, with the number of employees set to fall by over a million between 2010 and 2018 - nearly one-fifth.

"If delivered, the 1.1 million drop in general government employment forecast by the OBR between 2010–11 and 2018–19 would be almost three times larger than the previous drop during the early 1990s," says report author Jonathan Cribb, a research economist with the IFS, in a statement.

"With limited falls in the health and education workforces, the number of public sector workers in other areas could fall by 30% to 40% over the next five years."

As a result, many people will find themselves forced to move to the private sector. But this is often harder than it seems, thanks to radically different working environments and organisational objectives. Profit and productivity are key, but bureaucracy is lower. So how can you maximise your chances of making the move?

Focus on your skills
Many public sector jobs simply don't have a private sector equivalent, meaning you'll have to work that little bit harder to demonstrate that you're suitable for the role. The trick is to focus on the broader skills that have made you successful: skills that can be applied more or less anywhere.

"Some skills will be broad business ones, while others will be technical specialisms," says Graham Jenner of specialist employment agency Public Into Private.

"To identify those transferable skills, there are two simple starting points; a person's current job description or to ask colleagues the question, 'What am I good at?' The third step is to employee a professional CV writer or career coach who will be able to help pinpoint where strengths lie."

Projects tend to move more quickly in the private sector, so it helps if you can demonstrate the ability to work quickly and efficiently.

Get the language right
Many public sector organisations have their own jargon that's not generally used elsewhere. If you're not sure, ask a friend to check over your CV and covering letters for any examples - and then either remove them or translate them into more widely-used language.

Take careful note of the terms used in the job description and advertisement; make sure you understand them, and try and use the same language where appropriate.

Remember profit is king
The good news is that public sector practices are now more closely aligned with those of the private sector than ever before. With so many activities now contracted out, public sector workers have far more familiarity with budgets than they did in the past.

Nevertheless, there is a culture difference that needs to be recognised.

"Financially, public sector employees are far less likely to understand or have sight of the budgets. Money is often not the primary motivator for doing things, whereas profit is king in the private sector," says Jenner.

"Therefore, it is essential that public sector employees gain knowledge of the budgets under which they work and be able to demonstrate how they and the roles they interview for will contribute to the profitability of an organisation."

This may mean a radical CV overhaul. Focus on cost savings, productivity improvements, customer services and on working with external partners. Highlight occasions when you've worked against measurable targets - particularly financial ones - and if at all possible show your ability to manage a budget.

One problem for many public sector workers is that they've been performing essentially the same role for a very long time. If this is the case, try breaking the job down into a series of projects, if possible, detailing the outcomes of each.

Don't expect too much
Salaries have tended in the past to be higher in the private sector - but that's not really true these days. Indeed, a survey carried out by right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange last year concluded that public sector workers actually average 6% more - 14% in the north east. Other benefits, too - particularly pensions - may also be less attractive in the private sector.

Research your target companies
There's a widespread view within the private sector that public sector workers tend to be a bit out of touch with the real world. The best way to counter this opinion is by demonstrating a real familiarity with the business you're applying to and its wider market.

Look particularly for news stories about the company, read its press releases and corporate blog, and it should be possible to gain a clear idea of the company's current market position and strategy. Work out how your skills and experience can be aligned with this, and you're away.

Be prepared for different recruitment procedures
Many private sector organisations, particularly large ones, use similar formal recruitment procedures to the public sector - but many don't. Often, jobs aren't advertised conventionally at all.

It's a good idea, then, to take as proactive an approach as possible: join social networks such as LinkedIn and expand your circle of contacts as far as possible. It's also often worth applying on spec to any companies that particularly interest you or where you think your skills might be particularly useful.

Good targets for this approach are any private organisations with similar functions to your own department: from a state school to a fee-paying one, for example, or from a council housing department to a private lettings agency. It's also well worth approaching third party companies with which you may have worked in your public sector role. Just because you haven't seen a vacancy advertised doesn't mean they haven't got room for you - or know someone else who might.