Under a government that has been making cuts to public services, you’d be forgiven for thinking the public sector would be an arena of limited career opportunities.
On the contrary, the volatility of the last eight years, in the public and private sectors, has created unique challenges that require specific skills. And with Brexit a looming reality, further unique challenges appear set for the horizon.
“Since the global financial crisis there has been a marked increase in people looking at working within the public sector,” says Bradley Glen, operating director at Page Personnel Finance. “This tends to happen during most downturns as workers see the sector as more secure than the volatility and uncertainty of the commercial sector during this period.”
Lee Maidment FMAAT, a senior finance adviser at Hampshire County Council, says the strong demand for finance professionals in the public sector is due to transformation, savings and efficiencies. “You need the finance people to actually back that up – it’s all well and good saying you want to run something from three sites instead of four, but you need the finance input to work out all these ideas, and if the finances don’t stack up, there’s no point in doing it.”
Furthermore, a key characteristic of modern public services in the UK is the increasing move towards privatisation. On paper this does not sound positive for public sector finance departments, yet, as Ben Cookson MAAT, an accounting professional in the schools finance department at Cheshire East Council, points out, skilled finance professionals are required to manage such changes.
Projects being rolled out only to be rolled back is what can make working in the public sector frustrating, while also providing the very base need for financial expertise, says Cookson. “Devolution adds another dimension to the upcoming changes and with austerity already in full swing, financial decisions are more important than ever.”
The multitude of projects, systems upgrades and restructuring means that financial professionals are in huge demand, and as such can command decent salaries and benefit packages, says Phil Sheridan, senior managing director, Robert Half UK. “Current projects, such as updating accounting systems to be cloud based, mean roles are a lot more fluid than they have been in previous years.”
Jan McQuaker, director at Hays Accountancy & Finance, takes this point further by highlighting that despite public service organisations often having to make very conscious headcount and cost decisions, they frequently utilise the flexibility of temporary and interim staff to resource key projects. Yet despite the short-termism of the change and transformation agenda, public services can also offer long-term careers as stable as the private sector.
And because more people with a commercial background have moved into the public sector over the years, there is less stigma attached than in the past, says Bradley. “Couple this with the perceived views of ‘bankers’ and their input to the financial crisis, which still resonates with a lot of people, the public sector offers an attractive alternative.”
While there are certainly cycles to recruitment (i.e. more movement into the sector during downturns and opposite when markets improve), which will without doubt continue, there are growing trends related to the attractiveness of life in the public sector, which hasn’t always been the case.
“With more people from different backgrounds moving into the sector and added benefits like attractive pensions and work/life balance becoming more important to workers, I suspect more people will be open to working within the sector,” says Bradley.
“Couple this with the fact that people are now working longer careers and the way the public sector has embraced Equal Opportunities (including Age Discrimination) more openly, I suspect we will see more staff move into the public sector from the commercial sector later in their careers to come in and ‘add knowledge’ while enjoying the added benefits.”
There has been notable increases in demand across government departments nationally for trainees, management and financial accountants, as well as professionals with project management, financial analysis and change management experience, combined with commercial acumen.
Additionally, from a finance perspective Business Partner positions are in extreme demand, both at a part qualified and qualified level, says Bradley. “This is because more importance is now placed on where the numbers come from and what value there is from each pound spent, as opposed to just producing numbers and filing the accounts.”
And it’s not just in the government sector that demand is increasing. “We have seen a consistent demand for accountants among not-for-profit organisations,” says Jan. “There are over 1,500 charities registered in London alone and each one of them has a finance department creating ample opportunities for junior professionals looking to gain experience and move roles. Charities and not-for-profit organisations look for well-rounded candidates with a broad range of skills and the roles offered tend to be more varied than those available in the private sector. Charity finance roles suit a candidate who is looking to expand their skill-set and experience.
“Working in public services exposes you to a completely different set of challenges you are unlikely to experience elsewhere.”
Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.