Is it possible to move from the public sector to commercial finance roles?

By Greg Thorpe, managing director of Howett Thorpe

This is driven in part by a skills shortage in some areas of business, and also an acknowledgement that skills gained in the public sector are equally as valid as those gained in commercial roles.

Making the move from the public sector finance jobs to a private sector finance job is possible. After all, numbers and figures are all the same, whether someone works for a government department or within the finance department of a major retailer.

As the public sector no longer provides the job security many people thought they would get throughout their careers, we are working with an increasing number of candidates looking to make this move.

So should your organisation look to broaden its recruitment horizons and consider applications from candidates in the public sector?

While finance jobs in commercial firms may not be radically different to those in the public sector, there is one significant factor that requires a change of mind-set to make a successful transition – culture.

Private sector organisations are driven by profits, financial performance and productivity. As such public sector employees will find their experience of driving cost savings and efficiencies, and managing budgets all transfers easily to the private sector. However, public sector candidates may find the workplace culture is very different.

They may not be as used to working under pressure, as projects tend to be delivered much slower in the public sector. They may struggle to adapt to change and be flexible, and they may not have experience working in an agile and responsive way.

The private sector world is generally more stressful and fast-paced, and organisations are focused on making money for their stakeholders. Whereas in the public sector the focus is on providing services, and spending taxpayers’ money appropriately.

However, public sector finance professionals can be excellent candidates and offer transferrable skills that are currently in short supply from commercial candidates. In many cases the cultural differences between public and private are less marked, as the public sector has professionalised in recent years, especially with tighter budgets.

There is also a key advantage in employing former public sector workers if your organisation works with the public sector. If you want to tender for public sector contracts, it’s extremely useful to have someone onside who understands the drivers, terminology and culture of this different world. They could provide valuable insights and give your organisation a competitive edge over other businesses.

How can you ensure a good cultural fit?

When reviewing applicants’ CVs and interviewing candidates it is important to ascertain whether the candidate can make the cultural mind-set shift from public sector worker to private sector employee.

The following questions will help you decide whether they can make the transition:

  • Does the candidate have a clear idea of how their skills will help your organisation achieve its business objectives?

While the finance role you’re recruiting for may look very much like a similar role in the public sector, the candidate should understand the key differences between the commercial roles and public sector roles. You should expect them to tailor their CV for your opportunity, highlighting the key transferrable skills they have that are relevant to your organisation.

  • Is the candidate using commercial language?

Terminology and jargon vary between different industries and the public and private sectors are no different. While you wouldn’t expect a candidate to speak fluently in your industry’s language when they come from a different sector, you should expect some attempts to use appropriate terminology. This demonstrates a willingness to fit in with your culture and industry.

  • Where do the candidate’s motivations and values lie?

This is a difficult question to answer, as most candidates will be doing their best to make a great first impression and convince you that working for your organisation is the pinnacle of their career. However, during an interview you may be able to get a sense of how committed they are to the public sector – for many it’s more than ‘just a job’ but a job that can make a difference.

If the candidate is motivated by making a difference and improving peoples’ lives – and your organisation doesn’t proactively support these values – you may find they struggle in a commercial environment.

For more advice on recruiting for finance roles – both in the private and public sector – call 01252 718 777 or email

By Greg Thorpe, managing director of Howett Thorpe

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