· 9 min read · Features

Private sector staff seek careers in the public and third sectors

Published:

The public and third sectors, once viewed as private industry's poor relations, started to look like havens from the recession - but making the move from business can be a culture shock.

Jobs in the public and third sectors have long been seen as duller, lower paid and not for high achievers - especially when compared with the fast-paced private sector.

Yet, like an ex-partner who now looks more fun than you remember, the recession seems to be making the public realm more attractive (see The grass is greener, p36). People who previously would never have entertained the idea of a career in teaching or charities are suddenly doing just that (see opposite and below). A survey of private-sector staff earlier this year by Hays Public Services found 72% were now 'more likely' to consider public-sector employment than they would have just a year ago.

"The private sector is seriously going to have to think about the offers it makes," says Nita Clarke, director of the Involvement and Participation Association (IPA).

And more money is not the answer. Around 10% of workers in the Hays report would give up a fifth of their salary for what they see as more job security. However, that security is now in question. John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, who called the public sector "an entirely recession-free zone" at the beginning of the year, now admits it is starting to be affected.

Alan Clarke, sector engagement manager for Lifelong Learning UK, has other reservations about people moving to the public sector because it has traditionally been seen as more secure. "In itself this is not probably a good enough reason for getting people in but employees are considering options they may not have considered before."

And this movement seems to be gathering pace. "It might get up a head of steam in the next six months if there are more waves of (private sector) redundancies," says Penny de Valk, CEO of the Institute of Leadership Management.

Whether or not the migration can be sustained is another matter. "The public sector will in time be clobbered," says Steve Overell, associate director of The Work Foundation. "At the moment it's still a safe haven in comparison with the private sector."

This seems to be the case at lower entry levels. In the most recent TARGETjobs survey, students saw the public sector as the most attractive employment opportunity for the second year in a row. And graduate roles there are growing: in February, High Fliers found public-sector employers have 51% more positions available for graduates starting their careers. The Association of Graduate Recruiters says vacancies will carry on rising, with salaries up by 4%, while the NHS has seen 83% more applicants for its graduate management training scheme this year.

Charities are also picking up on the mood. "Compared with the slowdown in 2000-01, there are many more younger people seeking a permanent switch to charities," says Brent Thomas, director of recruiter PrimeTimers, which specialises in placing people with private-sector experience into charity positions. "A feature of this recession is that private-sector companies are not just letting their older workers go."

Decent money is increasingly on offer for those who do make the break: government investment has meant the public/private pay gap has narrowed since 1997, and in March the Labour Government agreed to honour wage increases of more than 2% a year until 2011.

For the biggest jobs in the public sector - such as the chief executives of Network Rail, Royal Mail and Channel 4 - there are £1 million-plus pay cheques on offer. Other top earners in the public realm can expect healthy pay rises too. Figures from the TaxPayers' Alliance show those on over £150,000 had a 10% average rise between 2007 and 2008.

Teaching's appeal is growing

The Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) has seen a 45% year-on-year increase in enquiries since the start of the credit crunch. More than 7,500 people attended its recent Train to Teach information events, 50% up on 2008. "We have also noticed a large number of trainees entering initial teacher training aged 25 years and over," says chief executive Graham Holley. "In 2007-08 the figure for trainees over 25 was 41.6%; this year it has risen to 46.7%." Every year around 38,000 new teachers are needed, especially in subjects such as maths and science, and the TDA is seeing considerable interest from City workers in these areas.

One man who made the leap from Square Mile to the classroom is Kevin Watson, an investment banker for a decade and a half until he was made redundant from Bear Stearns. A Cambridge physics graduate, Watson decided that he would teach the subject and is now at a state school, Watford Grammar School for Boys.

Watson admits that he may not have made the move if he had not lost his City position. But he says: "Job satisfaction means different things to different people: for me it means a 15-minute commute, being home at 4pm, seeing my children and working with people who are always on my side."

Public and private-sector managers have found a place in the third sector too. "As far as charities are concerned the range of talent coming their way is providing them with a broader and better choice," says Thomas. One recent survey of chief executives found 47% previously worked in the public sector, and 31% came from the private sector, with nearly half taking a salary drop to move.

But private sector skills are not always as highly sought after as one might think. "If you ask whether charities want these people, their response is ambivalent," suggests Thomas. "Charities are themselves letting people go as they are not immune from the reduction in incomes being experienced across business and government. And it is worth remembering that many people working in charities have an antipathy towards business."

This attitude is familiar to Dil Sidhu, who spent three years in senior roles at the London Borough of Lambeth. He had previously worked for KPMG, Safeway, Ernst & Young and Argos Retail Group. "The view of most council staff was: 'What do you know about local authorities?'" he recalls. "But there is a requirement for people to recruit outside the town hall. Spending cuts for local authorities are going to be acute which means they need to box clever."

But while skills are transferable, they may need to be tweaked. "There are more stakeholders and more constraints in the third sector," says Catherine Tollington, who was in senior management at Royal Mail before starting her own business working with health providers and voluntary organisations. "If you don't have an empathy with the way an organisation works, then you could end up being frustrated and upsetting a lot of people."

To avoid such clashes, HR directors have a role to play. "One has to be careful when recruiting from the private to the public sector because the mindset is so different," says Sam Mercer, director of workplace programmes at Business in the Community. "For political reasons you might not be able to do things."

Having ensured the right candidate has been chosen, HR must then be on the ball when it comes to helping them acclimatise, "making sure they are supported because they will feel like a fish out of water", says de Valk.

For private companies battling to find the best talent, this migration could yet create future difficulties as they work hard to woo people back. As Nita Clarke at the IPA warns: "The private sector will have to look at the whole employment package when they think about re-attracting top-calibre people."

PRIME MOVERS

Richard Granger, charged with running the procurement and delivery of the £6.2 billion Connecting for Health NHS IT modernisation, was rumoured to have been lured from his position as partner at Deloitte Consulting by a £250,000 salary that made him the highest-paid civil servant at the time of his appointment in October 2002. The TaxPayers' Alliance believes that nearly 200 people in the public sector now earn more than prime minister Gordon Brown's £189,994.

Dil Sidhu was director of supply chain programmes at Argos Retail Group before moving to the London Borough of Lambeth in 2003. He stayed for three years, first as director of corporate programmes and then as acting assistant chief executive. He has since moved back into the private sector as national director for working capital management at BDO Stoy Hayward, where he runs seminars on how to do business with local authorities.

Ian Watmore quit as UK managing director of Accenture in 2004 to become the first government chief information officer and head of the eGovernment unit. In 2005 he was promoted to a permanent secretary role at the Cabinet Office as head of Tony Blair's delivery unit and then to a similar post at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. The lifelong football fan returned to the private sector in June this year as CEO of the Football Association.

Gill Perkins was head of strategic marketing and partnerships at Travelex, then director of marketing at security company Control Risks. After falling out of love with the corporate sector, she volunteered in various fundraising roles including at Marie Curie and the British Lung Foundation. Getting a third-sector job proved difficult and demanded a rethink of the way she presented her skills. Perkins was appointed two years ago to Homeless Link as head of marketing and communications.

Catherine Tollington held various corporate posts at Royal Mail including head of franchise and head of stakeholder management. Following voluntary redundancy, she did a master's degree in social enterprise management and set up a consultancy called CAN Health & Sport that worked with NHS bodies and local community organisations. She has recently been freelancing on projects that encourage GP surgeries to make better use of third-sector resources on the ground.

NEIL FENTON, Westminster Children's Society

From music to youth

Neil Fenton's career with Chrysalis Group, which for more than 20 years combined his accountancy and business skills with a love of music and travel, was punctuated with urges to put something back into society. As chief operating officer of the music division, he carried on exploring his interest in the charity sector with a visit to Nigeria in 2005 as part of a team working with a trust to provide education for young people.

In October 2007 he was made redundant and spent a few months as a consultant in the music industry. Then in April 2008 he took a month off to consider his future. Researching government and local government opportunities showed him he would be slightly removed from the coalface - and made him realise that the world of charities was what really enthused him.

"I'm not a political person," he says. "It struck me early on that things move very slowly in government and that would have frustrated me. I wanted to make a difference to somebody rather than being on the outside looking in. Being at a charity also fits in with my Christian faith."

The next step was to look at job opportunities via newspapers and websites. "I naively assumed people would be falling over themselves to get my skills as many posts made it clear they wanted applicants from the private sector. I subsequently realised this was not the case," he says. Although he was shortlisted to the last four out of a 100 or so applicants a few times, he was turned down because he had no charity experience. "It was a frustrating and depressing time." Determined to gain some experience, he attended a course on the difference between the charity and private sectors and immersed himself in charity sector research.

"A turning point came when I was given PrimeTimers' number by a recruitment agency and went to meet director Brent Thomas," he says. PrimeTimers is a social enterprise that specialises in supplying business skills to the third sector. As Thomas explains: "We arranged for Neil to do some pro-bono work at Bow Childcare which gave him a huge insight into the problems and joys of running a charity. What was initially a caretaking role soon became a rescue plan and Bow Childcare was ultimately taken over by a leading children's charity."

"I also became a trustee of War Child," Fenton says, "and this is particularly rewarding as I can use my experience from both the music business and finance for an organisation that does amazing work, helping to restore the lives of hundreds of children, often in dangerous conditions in war-torn corners of the world."

Three months later, PrimeTimers put Fenton forward for an interim role with Westminster Children's Society (WCS) as finance director. WCS is a charity and leading social enterprise, providing affordable community nurseries and education for young children, with additional commitment to early years training, research and policy direction. Fenton then applied for the full-time post and was delighted when he was offered it.

He says: "I'm continually surprised at how complex the operation of running this charity is. And I find myself learning new skills and acquiring knowledge on a daily basis." He believes charities have to be run "along the best of business lines" and that he has the skills to help achieve this - "cost controls, how businesses run and being able to analyse potential new opportunities, seeing if something makes sense from a financial and strategic perspective, thinking ahead."

He now earns less than half his old salary. "Everyone is here because they want to make a difference to the children, whereas in the private sector money tends to be more of a driving force."

Fenton does not know anyone else who has made the move from private to charity sector. "It was hard work," he says. "People have to be realistic about how long it will take and how you will be viewed. For example, there was suspicion around why I would take a pay cut."

Would he have made the move without being made redundant? "I like to think so. Maybe not for a year or two ... I don't know."

- Why are people deserting the private sector?

As the economy continues to struggle in the fiscal equivalent of a WWF SmackDown, it is no surprise corporate white-collar workers are looking at public and third-sector positions with new interest.

The drop in pay is cushioned by a promise of greater job security - but the trend may also be down to something less tangible: humility. "A lot of managers have had their fundamental convictions shaken quite badly," says Steve Overell, associate director of The Work Foundation.

"Ultimately it is up to the public realm to act as guarantor of economic stability, to keep the system working. It could be that people are looking at the public sector in a new way because of that."

"If this recession has done anything it has shattered the illusion that somehow business knows best," says Brent Thomas of private-to-third-sector recruiter PrimeTimers. "This means those who come from business have to work harder at persuading charities they have something special to offer."

Even so, private companies may have to get used to being shunned. "The challenge is that the private sector is not recruiting: it is trying to hang on to talent where it can," says Penny de Valk, CEO of the Institute of Leadership Management. "The public sector might become more aggressive in terms of attracting talent."