· Features

Outplacement: Public sector employers could help with ‘career transition’, but private sector should shed its prejudices

The axe will fall on 600,000 UK public sector jobs by 2015, according to the CIPD.

Gone are the days when a teaching assistant or civil servant could land another public sector role. Pressure has been piled on the private sector to pick up much of the slack. But unemployment is rising here too, with the latest ONS statistics putting UK unemployment at a 27-year high. Some short-sighted employers actively discount using 'institutionalised' ex-public sector workers.

Meanwhile, research by recruiter Hays and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) found that public sector people often view the private sector as profit-obsessed, 'back-stabbing' and 'dog-eat-dog'. So are HR directors in the public sector doing enough to help bridge this perceived culture gap and prepare departing staff for their next career step?

"We are dealing with 1,000 redundancies and are providing loads of in-house support for those people," says Anne Gibson, head of HR and OD at Norfolk County Council and president of the Public Sector People Managers' Association (PPMA). "Support takes the form of advice on how to job-hunt, help with interview skills and get access to job boards and online training tools."

A few more senior managers are getting specialist outplacement help, "but we haven't spent on a major outplacement programme because of the costs involved", says Gibson. "A lot of PPMA members use outplacement sparingly, because the money just isn't there in the current climate."

Gibson says employees and the unions are satisfied with what is being offered in Norfolk, against a backdrop of unprecedented economic hardship. However, her view isn't universally shared: many county councils, NHS trusts, universities, central government departments and quangos are finding funding for more comprehensive outplacement services as part of their redundancy packages.

Outplacement and 'career transition' aim to ease people through an emotional and highly challenging change process, ideally putting them in a better position for redeployment or impressing a new employer.

Companies such as Hays, Penna and DBM are kept busy offering services that typically include one-to-one coaching over a number of months, workshops that help with CV writing, interview techniques, self-employment and job-hunting skills, as well as access to job databases and online training tools.

At Birmingham City Council (BCC), where 5,000 jobs have gone and many more redundancies are expected, extra funding for outplacement came through from the central council budget this September. Provided by Penna, the services range from workshops and coaching to access to Penna Sunrise, a career-planning tool.

Sue Wait, HR business partner for people resourcing at BCC, says there is also now a 'bridging' programme in place to help people find work in the private sector. "We hosted a jobs fair recently, and have written to 120 top companies in Birmingham with the aim of setting up job taster days and work trials, and building valuable networking relationships," says Wait. "Budgets are being cut everywhere, so money is incredibly tight, but Birmingham City Council felt outplacement and reaching out to the private sector needed to be part of the reorganisational process.

"Outplacement has traditionally been a private sector activity, but we have noticed a shift in the past two years towards services being required in the public sector far more," says Owen Morgan, commercial director of Penna. He says Penna has signed up 190 public sector outplacement projects over the past two years. In the past year alone, the company has dealt with 25,000 individuals whose jobs are threatened, but that will be closer to 30,000 next year, predicts Morgan.

Even successfully redeployed people will find themselves working to a different remit after a major organisational restructure, points out Penny de Valk, chief executive at career management company Fairplace Cedar. "So career transition support is needed here too, as people adjust to changed roles and different workplace values and behaviours," she says.

Openly bringing in support helps organisations protect their people and their brand. "It is so important that HR professionals in both the private and public sector plan in advance how to support employees with redeployment and retraining advice," says Ciaran Wrynne, head of design and delivery for Hays Career Transition. "There are cost and resource implications for getting outplacement set up, but the long-term benefits confirm the business case. Organisations that have provided outplacement support are less likely to find themselves involved in tribunals and are more likely to preserve morale among the 'survivors', while those leaving are more likely to cope with the change and find new employment.

"Research has shown that a quick transition into a new job will limit the social and economic costs associated with long-term unemployment," adds Wrynne.

Rather than being viewed as a drain on public money, outplacement can help protect the public purse in the long term. Certainly, for individuals, it is a lifeline. Where it is offered, organisations see an 80% take-up of career transition support, according to Hays' 2010 study, Supporting Staff Facing Redundancy, with just 4% opting for an improved financial package instead.

But 62% of public sector employees said they did not receive any support from their organisation when they were made redundant. "This is short-sighted. We are finding that 'public to private' coaching is helping to tackle people's assumptions about how different the two worlds are. It enables people to acclimatise, know what to expect and adapt to a different culture," says Wrynne. Hays and the LCCI have identified practical ways to ease the transition, including government funding to incentivise the private sector to hire from the ex-public sector pool, better on-boarding for new arrivals in the corporate world and promoting more self-reliance and resourcefulness among those making the move.

Meanwhile, a survey from the World of Learning Conference and Exhibition found 67% of learning and development professionals believe the Government should set aside a budget to retrain public sector staff to help them find jobs in the corporate world or become self-employed.

"We repeatedly hear the question: 'What are my chances of getting a job in the private sector?'" says Morgan at Penna. "There is a hunger for those roles, but public sector people do need to adjust their expectations in some cases, for instance, to understand there's not a culture of getting settled into a job for life. What we remind people of is the fact that both public and private sector employers are broadly looking for the same traits in their workforce: reliability, good communication skills, working well in a team. So a lot of people are more fearful of the change than they need be."

Is there negative sentiment for public sector people to overcome? According to a survey of 240 CEOs of SME companies by utility price comparison website uSwitch, 22% intend to hire new staff, but only 2% would actively seek to recruit public sector workers. When HR magazine asked 40 HR bosses about public sector workers, almost half said they had no intention of recruiting from this pool. An unnamed source working in one careers advice agency told HR: "They are just not a good fit. They are entrenched in what they do and stick rigidly with the hours and duties in their job description, going to the union if anything extra is asked of them. In the private sector, you need to be a self-starter, question how things are being done and adapt as the market changes without a fuss."

Gibson at the PPMA says this is exactly the kind of negative sentiment the organisation is working hard to stamp out. "There are very damaging, misleading messages in the media. Instead, we should be promoting the rich talent public sector employees have to offer," she says. "Of course anyone - private or public sector - that has been in the same role for a long time needs support around adapting and marketing themselves. Our message is that public sector people have been carrying out stimulating, important, rewarding work, in workplaces that are well managed and highly cost-conscious. People who have moved across the sectors will tell you that."

Hays found that a massive 72% of employers in the public sector thought the Government should be funding outplacement support, but such help seems unlikely. In the meantime, existing severance budgets are being stretched. Tokenistic efforts - such as a one-off group workshop for £600 - might be low-cost, but probably won't be life-changing for the participants.

Paying between £1,000 and £2,000 per head for one-to-one coaching, workshops and access to online resources and recruitment agencies is far more likely to get meaningful results, helping people assess their skills and plan their future, say the experts.

Trade unions could do more to support their members beyond their extensive work fighting job cuts and negotiating the right severance deals, suggests Morgan. "Unions could help with up-skilling workers and advising on developing the career path and how to be prepared for change," he says. Robert Ingram, vice president of HR at management consultancy Capgemini, agrees: "There is scope for some good, ground-breaking labour relations here, if the public authorities and unions worked together. They could maximise the readiness of people being made redundant for the next stage of their working life," he says. "It should become a key part of the consultation process."

Everyone, from probation officers to payroll clerks, should take a more strategic view of their own career and consider being 'job ready'. "Across the public sector, we are already helping employees with personal career management," says de Valk. "How good are they at networking? Do they keep their CV updated, and are they building on their skills, ready for the next stage in their career?" she says. "Often, people don't realise they have skills that are highly transferable. It is a case of building confidence and reminding people that the private sector is no longer a different world. After all, who in the public sector these days doesn't know what it's like to work with budgets and targets?"

Camden Council: cost-effective, high-quality outplacement

With 970 'post deletions' expected during its three-year change programme, Camden Council's HR service is in the second year of supporting the organisation through a large-scale transformation programme to make £83 million of savings.

To support all staff undergoing change, Hays was brought in, in November 2010, to provide a programme of career and outplacement support. All staff affected by the restructure have the opportunity to attend an interview skills workshop, to prepare them for internal interviews. "We are aware some employees may not have been through the interview process for many years," says HR advisor Deirdre Deats. "By refreshing interview skills, everyone has the chance to demonstrate the best of their skills and abilities."

There is also help available for staff at the redeployment stage. "Through offering a range of tools, from CV-writing workshops to online learning modules such as negotiating job offers, writing a good cover letter and networking, we have had a positive response to support available," says Vanessa Lincoln, change manager at the council. This is represented by a strong take-up of 85% for CV-writing workshops, 51% for e-learning usage and 14% for coaching, she says.

"In everything we do, we need to be cost-effective and have worked hard to constantly challenge ourselves to do things differently. For example, we hold bite-size face-to-face sessions, deliver a number of sessions in the same day and increase the ratio of trainer-to-employee to meet high demand," says Lincoln. "Through this approach, we have managed to redeploy 25% of staff facing compulsory redundancy. This has saved approximately £310,000 in severance and recruitment costs."

Capgemini: mislabelling public sector is 'horrific'

Business technology consulting firm Capgemini has a history of employing ex-public sector workers, through winning outsourced contracts for government departments, and also recruiting extensively from privatised public utilities such as British Gas. The company has invested in outplacement and transition coaching for many years, to ensure colleagues understand the working culture and are suited to the roles they are taking on. Robert Ingram, vice president of HR at Capgemini, believes labelling public sector workers as unproductive, uncreative and over-indulged to be "a horrific generalisation".

"You have to look at public sector roles in their proper context," he says. "For instance, some parts of the civil service have working processes that are extremely thorough and consultative. Progress may appear slow compared to how things get done in the private sector, but it has to be that way. People working there are highly skilled and should be judged on the effort they put in, not the pace of progress they are constrained by." Meanwhile, he says there is plenty of innovation and cost-effective working practice in the health and education sectors.

Ingram does sometimes see people portraying themselves in a negative light in interviews because they have a tendency to focus on the change they have been through, rather than talking up their future vision and what they aim to achieve. "I want to see fire and passion for what an individual wants to do next. If all they can refer to is what they did in the past and how the change has unsettled them, I am not going to be very impressed."

Employers understand individuals post-redundancy lose confidence in themselves and can't imagine going out and getting a new job. "That is why outplacement is so valuable if change has been enforced," says Ingram. "It helps people develop a positive new mindset. They go from thinking, 'I'm an out-of-work payments professional' to saying, 'I've got accounting skills, customer service skills, team-working skills. I'd do really well in an insurance company or bank.' It is very powerful to give people a sense of what they can do next, rather than leave them to dwell on what they have lost."