How do you move to the private sector after years spent in the public service?

How do you move to the private sector after years spent in the public service? Photo: Thinkstock

Public servants will need to be flexible and willing to accept big cultural changes should they find themselves needing to switch to the private sector, in the wake of proposed job cuts after the federal election.

The Coalition says it will cut 12,000 public service jobs – with various claims of whether it will be by natural attrition or through redundancies – while Labor's economic statements also indicate likely job losses numbered in the thousands.

Canberra's recruitment agents say it's hard to predict exactly what will happen after the election, but say public servants looking to switch to the private sector will need to be flexible to adapt to a more commercial working culture.

PCA People branch manager Linda Bennett said there were a number of transferable skills public servants could bring to private organisations, but candidates needed to understand the real and the perceived cultural differences between the two sectors.

''Culturally the public sector is often described by clients and candidates alike as bureaucratic, hierarchical, regulated and with rewards and pay scales based on rank and tenure. The private sector is often described as more dynamic, innovative, growth-focussed and with rewards based on initiative and outcomes,'' Ms Bennett said.

''These can be generalisations and there are exceptions within both sectors. Candidates who acknowledge these generalisations are better placed to understand the transition from one sector to the other.''

Ms Bennett also warned against falling back on ''public service terminology'' in interviews, which could turn a private sector employer off.

Hays Canberra business director Jim Roy said the most difficult thing for some public servants would be dealing with a shift towards a more dynamic, but less flexible, work environment in the private business world.

''I think the biggest adaptation is potentially culturally, where if you're going into a commercial business, you might not get the flexibility. You could argue you could get an increase in salary, certainly at the more senior end, but ... the work-life balance might not always be there,'' he said.

Mr Roy said the last big public service cull in 1996 led to a skills shortage in Canberra, which meant that within 12 to 18 months a number of new opportunities opened up.

Another recruiter, Anne Kowalski of Kowalski Recruitment, said her jobs agency started in the aftermath of the 1996 job cuts, when a number of contracting roles started to become available.

Ms Kowalski said short-term contract and consultancy roles offered an ideal transition for some public servants, who could then choose to switch back into the public service when jobs became available, or continue to progress in the private sector instead.

''The skills and qualifications and experience are easily transferable, particularly in the areas which are in high demand such as health, accounting, and legal professions. But what is most important is the attitude and ability to be flexible and look outside the square, possibly consider contract work in the private sector as well as being prepared to accept different employment conditions,'' she said.

Sydney-based legal recruitment specialist Elvira Naiman, of Naiman Clarke, said, in the world of law, some former public servants could find it a little more challenging due to a lack of vacancies in the sector and a stigma against long-term public servants.

''The private sector to government move doesn't seem very difficult, the government sector very warmly accepts lots of candidates. In the other direction, things are a bit of a different story,'' she said.

Ms Naiman said having a speciality – such as tax, business, or coming out of the Australian Government Solicitor – could help, but added that the longer a lawyer had been in the public sector, the harder they would find it to be accepted back into the fast-paced commercial world.

''There does seem to be some stigma associated with a long-term stint in government,'' she said.

''Even where the specialisation might match back up to a private sector division in a firm, that doesn't necessarily guarantee that after that four, five-year mark that firms are going to readily accept that candidate.''

In terms of pay, the most recent analysis comparing public sector to private sector salaries is from December 2010, and shows that while entry-level public servants are well-remunerated, there is capacity to earn more money at senior levels in private sector.

According to Ms Kowalski, another key difference will be in superannuation payments – public servants currently get a minimum of 15.4 per cent super, with some still on more generous schemes from years gone past. In the private sector, most companies stick close to the mandated minimum of 9.25 per cent.

Ultimately, all recruiters spoken to agree on one thing: it's hard to predict exactly what will happen over the coming months, so keeping a positive attitude will be the most important thing for concerned bureaucrats.

“If the expectations are right, and the approach of looking at the private sector as an opportunity to gain a broader experience and background and expand skill sets, then the transition can be quite seamless," Ms Kowalski said.