The public sector finance job-hunting guide
A career in the public sector can be one focused on working towards the public good and not just for profit. It can be challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
But before we look at career paths and job-hunting more closely, let's first bust a few myths that surround working in the public sector.
1) The public sector is slow, grey, inflexible and behind the times
How can this be true when you consider how often governments change or how often departments are being asked to change? Yes there are protocols and processes as in any organisation, but the modern public sector also embraces new technology, systems and management styles, like its private sector cousin.
2) Jobs for life
While the public sector is still considered a secure career path, jobs for life are increasingly a thing of the past, which makes for far more healthy levels of competition for roles and likewise more attractive remuneration packages. It also helps improve leadership, the scope of responsibilities within teams, learning and development, and overall performance.
3) Low pay
It’s worth bearing in mind that salary inflation has been slow and low within the private sector over the last few years, so this, coupled with good benefits (eg attractive pension schemes, flexible working etc), has seen the gap with the private sector reduce.
The scope of the public sector
The public sector is one of the largest employers in any country. For example, the UK’s public sector employs 16-17% of the workforce, in the US it’s around 15%, its estimated at up to 50% in Russia, 32% in Norway, 25% in Mongolia, 15% in Malaysia, while public employee salaries in Iraq count for over 45% of total government spending.
A country’s public sector is responsible for services such as the military, law enforcement, education, healthcare, infrastructure, transport, as well as the various levels of local, regional and central government.
Public sector finance roles
Finance as a function and finance professionals are present at every level of government and in every service a public sector provides. This means the scope of roles is incredibly varied: financial accounting, management accounting, forensic accounting, internal audit and assurance, procurement and supply chain accounting, change managers, budgeting, project accounting, business partnering, governance, sustainability, payroll, systems accounting, data and financial analysis, and so on.
- Educational institutions
- Healthcare authorities, bodies and trusts
- Housing associations and charities
- Local and central government
- National and district audit bodies
- Police authorities
- Utilities bodies
The in demand public sector roles and skills
Fully qualified accountants are in extremely high demand, especially if they have existing public sector experience, says Henry Morse, associate director, Robert Half UK. ‘Added to this, we’re seeing increasing need from public sector bodies for people who can communicate with senior business leaders in simple, jargon-free language. Being able to take complex figures and explain the implications for non-technical audiences is becoming more important than ever.’
Demand is also high for business partners, finance professionals who work with other departments to help integrate systems, provide financial support and analysis, and make valuable connections.
Although Covid-19 has dented demand for entry level and junior finance professionals in the public sector, given the cutbacks to training, trainee finance and accounting roles are starting to grow again. This is a great way to get in at the ground floor and fully understand how the public sector works and the career paths on offer. Public sector finance trainee schemes often provide good levels of professional qualification support, as well as the mentoring and guidance to see you through the practical experience requirement (PER).
- Strong oral and written communication skills
- Attention to detail
- IT proficiency
- Commercial acumen
- Analytical and problem-solving skills
- Integrity and a high level of ethical standards
- Self-motivated and positive approach
- Resilient and comfortable with change
How do you impress public sector employers?
- Make sure your CV and LinkedIn profile are fully updated. ‘Your CV should be specifically tailored to each application to best match the role – in particular, when listing technical skills, it’s often worth going into more detail. Rather than just listing ‘Excel’ as a skill, elaborate on exactly which functions you’re familiar with and what relevant systems you’re proficient at,’ says Morse.
- Use your network and explore forums or groups that are available so you can learn more about your target area from people who’ve been there and done that.
- Gain knowledge and experience of the public sector by working in it, even if it’s voluntarily. This will go a very long way to making you stand out and show you’re passionate.
- Show that you care and believe in the public sector. One of the reasons people want to work here is because it is rewarding, you’re working towards the public good, helping to improve society.
- We can all relate to the public sector - we’ve all used education, healthcare, transport, and probably a family member or friend works in the military, the fire service, or as a doctor, teacher, nurse or accountant!
Career paths and prospects
Public sector bodies provide well-structured career paths and plenty of opportunity to develop and specialise. Careers can focus in areas ranging from local government to healthcare, from education to central government and specialist agencies. Careers are also geographically mobile given the public sector can be found virtually everywhere.
From entry level positions working within finance teams, seniority can be achieved all the way through team to departmental management, and on to leadership roles that can cover larger geographies or specialist projects.
ACCA is a well-recognised qualification in the public sector, with many students, affiliates, members and fellows holding positions at all levels across the world. There are public sector specific ACCA networks that provide professional support, assistance and networking opportunities. The ACCA also launched the Certificate in Public Financial Management (Cert PFM) in 2019, which provides a practical and broad-based knowledge of public financial management, and complements ACCA members’ continued professional development (CPD). Then there’s ACCAs annual public sector conference to attend online.
Moving between private and public sectors
As far as moving between public and private sectors, there isn’t a huge amount of variation between the two in terms of career trajectories for finance professionals. Many public sector entities are structured like businesses, so if you move from the private sector it will be familiar and vice versa.
‘The biggest difference between the two is the purpose, vision and financial drivers of the respective organisations, which results in a very different culture and ethos,’ says Morse. This can make it difficult for some people to make the jump from one to another, particularly if they’ve been in their previous sector for a long time.