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As the cutbacks bite, how easy is it for public sector finance professionals to find jobs in the private sector? And what can they do to boost their chances?

This article was first published in the May 2011 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

‘This is the worst possible time to be job hunting in local government,’ says a gloomy FD. Having signed off the most draconian budget in his career, the director is assessing his options as local authorities, the civil service and the NHS contract under record funding cuts and job losses.

The private sector job market looks a lot rosier and many, like the director, are starting to weigh up the pros and cons of switching sectors. But just how easy is it to move?

 Few corners of the public sector will be left untouched by the coalition government’s reform and deficit reduction programme. Whitehall departments will see funding slashed by up to 40% over the next four years and 192 government quangos, including the Audit Commission, will be abolished. Ten strategic health authorities and 151 primary care trusts will disappear by 2013, to be replaced by GP commissioning consortia. And local authorities faced with budget reductions of 26% are making significant redundancies and service cuts. Regardless of redeployment, the market for finance professionals in the public sector is about to shrink and future prospects for those climbing the career ladder look very uncertain. In contrast, the market for private sector professionals is at its most buoyant for two years. According to recruitment company Reed, the demand for accountants and finance professionals is up 30% in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the end of 2009, and it expects this trend to continue.

As the public sector starts year one of its four-year austerity regime, there is now more certainty over the challenges and, conversely, some of the opportunities for finance professionals, which may account for some of the market buoyancy. The government has made it clear that while it shrinks the state through a reduction in public spending, it expects the private sector to play a greater role. The outsourcing, shared services and the consultancy markets are all expected to benefit.

Sought-after knowledge

For private companies gearing up to win this business, knowledge of the sector and its regulatory and policy processes will become a valuable commodity – turning a negative into a potential positive for the public finance community. ‘The outlook may well be many opportunities to move into business,’ says Heath Bartmanis, regional manager at Reed Finance. ‘Public sector business providers will be keen to have them [public sector professionals] as part of their teams. The Big Four have already been beefing up their advisory teams in anticipation of an influx of work in outsourcing.’

He also points to opportunities around the abolition of the Audit Commission, with valuable audit contracts for local government potentially up for grabs after 2013–14. ‘In financial services, regulatory audit and governance are top of the agendas and these skill sets exist in the public sector, they are transferable,’ he adds. Recruitment company Hays is also advising its candidates to promote their specialist knowledge and networks to potential private sector employers.

Similar skills

The issue of transferable skills and how these are marketed is central to making the move into business, as is overcoming the perceptions that there are very different breeds of accountant in the public and private sectors.

Ian Knowles, corporate director of Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation, has extensive experience working in the private and public sectors and says there are clear differences in skills and organisational focus. Put simply he says: ‘Local government is not income-focused, it’s service-focused.’

There is some debate as to whether the difference in skill sets – with business focusing on profit, income and competition, and the public sector on spending a fixed budget efficiently – are surmountable. Frances Carter FCCA, head of grants for the government’s Sure Start scheme, says that the differences really aren’t that big. ‘The kind of work we do is very similar. I manage a budget of around £2bn a year and I have to manage that with good control for taxpayers, who are just like shareholders.’
She oversees large grant accounts, negotiates terms and conditions, collects and deciphers huge amounts of data and reacts to an almost constant stream of change. ‘These skills are just as valid in the public as in the private sector,’ she says. 

Paul Venables, CFO of Hays, says the move between sectors isn’t for everyone and in the private sector it’s all about results. ‘I’ve interviewed candidates from the public sector with just as much relevant experience,’ he says. ‘They have to show areas where they’ve added value and if they can’t demonstrate that within five minutes it won’t work.’

How to transfer

Jonathan Flowers, partner and head of local government at recruitment adviser Veredus, says it may be easier for professionals to transfer at the level below finance director. ‘In a broader corporate management position you have to operate in a particular context and the differences may trip people up.’ He says part of the challenge for candidates is understanding and using the same language as the private sector to sell their skills.

‘People will talk about managing P&L,’ he says. ‘You can’t just talk about managing budgets. You have to give examples of innovation that impact the bottom line and active demand management.’ He says candidates should research and understand the ‘risks’ of a company appointing them and ‘have a strategy for mitigating them’. Part of this is choosing the right company (see below).

We are still only a matter of weeks into the era of austerity for the public sector, but over the next four years the lines between business and state services are expected to blur as the market for providing services widens. For finance professionals it isn’t all gloom. As markets widen so could the demand for their skills – opening doors that may previously have been closed.

Top tips

  1. Speak the private sector’s language: focus more on outcomes and successes than processes.
  2.  Tailor your CV to showcase transferable skills.
  3. Utilise networks: you may have private sector clients who would be useful contacts.
  4. Market your knowledge: as business service providers look to win more government contracts, exploit your knowledge of regulation and policy.

CASE STUDY: THE HOUSING FD

For this finance director – she didn’t want to be named – it was time to move to a new challenge. In a few weeks she’ll take up a post with a private sector shared-services supplier after five years working in education and housing. Her decision to move was prompted by the government’s changes to housing policy.

‘For years the whole focus was on getting people into homes, supporting them and creating stable communities,’ she says. ‘Now the focus is on providing people with houses and as soon as they can afford it saying “you’re out, time to move”. It’s not about building communities any more, it’s a complete change of focus, and the chief executive and board members [of housing associations] have to really question what they are there for.’

She says this, combined with the budget cuts, brought some of her frustrations with the public sector into sharper focus, particularly the slow pace of change and the management culture.

She says she knew exactly what sort of company she wanted to work for. ‘It had to capture the things I’m passionate about, such as Investors in Excellence and shared services,’ she says. ‘It had to have the right ethos and give something back to the community.’ She admits having previous experience in the private sector was a distinct advantage during her job search, but public sector professionals do have sought-after skills. ‘There are transferable skills. But if you look at the governance of the public sector, its financial regulations and policies, there is experience in processes and frameworks that the private sector misses.’

To make the transition she signed up with recruitment agencies, as ‘there are so many jobs that don’t get advertised’. She says her CV had to be ‘pitched correctly’ to focus on her achievements and she used networking tools such as LinkedIn to get involved in relevant groups and communicate with recruiters and potential employers. She says the interview feedback from consultants was very useful and she rang them every two weeks to keep abreast of progress.

‘I’m excited about my new role and I still think that I will be giving something back. There is a lot of change in the public sector and it will probably have to get worse before it gets better. But I’m not saying I’d never go back.’

CASE STUDY: IAN KNOWLES

The key to moving between the private and public sectors is choosing the right organisation, says Ian Knowles FCCA. He should know. He’s had a career in retail, engineering, local government and then the quasi-private sector as corporate director at Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation (YPO).

He joined the public sector in the mid-1990s when local government was actively recruiting commercial accountants. One of his first jobs was supporting the Greater Manchester transport authority for the city council. Along with working across county and metropolitan councils he’s had a range of other ‘hybrid’ public/private jobs, such as working for a leisure trust and for Connexions South Yorkshire, which have led him into his current role at YPO. He says he could see where ‘local government was heading’ and was attracted to YPO because it straddled both the private and public sectors as a self-funded, profit-making body that is governed by 13 local authorities.

He says he gets the best of both worlds: helping local government find efficiencies in its bulk purchasing power while working in a commercially focused organisation. ‘YPO has a very commercial outlook. We’re always looking at our next sale or [from] where we’re going to generate income.’ He says moving from local government into YPO was a ‘straightforward process’ because he had the right performance and governance experience. Finding the right match is the key to transitioning across the sectors. ‘You have to pick the right type of organisation. There’s no point jumping into manufacturing; that would feel very uncomfortable. It has to be an environment, like service, that is right.’

He says his first few months at YPO bought back his experiences of the private sector very quickly. Anyone thinking of switching sectors needs to brush up on income generation, cashflow and working capital. ‘There are differences between the two sectors and those become important factors again,’ he says.

Case study source: Hays

Karen Day, journalist

Last updated: 7 Apr 2014