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Private or Public Sector - Which Is Right For You?

Written by: John Eccleston
Published on: 22 Sep 2014

Over the years, the private and public sectors each offered their own distinct benefits and challenges, with HR professionals often finding themselves at the forefront of sector-wide developments and changes.

Even in a mobile professional like HR, there was a belief that you were either a public sector HR person or a private sector one.

However, in recent years, and particularly in the UK’s post-recession climate, many of the distinctions between the two sectors have begun to melt away, with each requiring similar skill sets and approaches from their HR people.

Broadly speaking, HR in the private and public sectors has always had the same core aims – to enable organisations to perform well by effectively dealing with people and people-related issues.

Previously it had been widely felt that public sector HR professionals aren’t as commercially-savvy as their private sector counterparts (and this has often been perceived as a barrier for those wishing to transition from the public to private sector), but the post-recession upheaval in the public sector has helped to bury that misconception.

Public sector employers of all sizes have been required to make huge, year-on-year efficiency savings since the coalition Government came into power in 2010, and the sector’s HR departments have been at the forefront of delivering this. And in doing so, these HR professionals have demonstrated their ability to work with the bottom line very much in mind.

Furthermore, public sector HR itself wasn’t immune from the cuts, and many HR departments have been scaled back, operating on a much leaner basis than before. This puts paid to the accusation that public sector HR, like the wider sector it represented, was bloated and slow-moving.

The public sector has undoubtedly taken a bit of a battering in recent years, and its HR workforce has been in the thick of it.

With the responsibility for implementing widespread job cuts, restructures and pay constraints, public sector HR folk could be forgiven for not relishing each day’s work at the moment.

And this has also been a deterrent to many HR professionals wanting to take on a public sector role. Back in 2012 – two years into the cuts - research found 82% of public sector employers were struggling to fill vacancies in their organisations. Public sector recruiters were also three times more likely to say their sector had an image problem than their private sector counterparts.

But the public sector’s challenges shouldn’t necessarily be perceived as a reason to reject it as a career option. Instead, HR professionals can see this as an opportunity to develop themselves and build an impressive set of skills and experience in a challenging environment.

Of course, the sector is a demanding place to work in an HR role right now. But from a longer-term career perspective, representing HR through these tough times will, to be blunt, look good on your CV.

Dealing with widespread, daily challenges requires you to perfect your current skills and also to adopt new ones, so your skills and experience will benefit from helping to deal with major issues such as redundancies or difficult pay negotiations – not to mention retaining and motivating staff who might be tempted elsewhere.

As such, the public sector is currently an attractive option for someone looking to bolster their HR skills portfolio. And as the public sector faces continued expectation to deliver more for less, this will increasingly be the case.

Many HR professionals prefer to target the private sector for their career because they feel it offers more variety than the public sector. The private sector is also perceived to suffer from fewer of the operational constraints and bureaucratic barriers that exist in the public sector – although again, this might not be true for every organisation.

Currently, the main distinction between the two sectors is that the private sector is largely looking to grow again as the economy makes its way out of recession. So, private sector employers are more likely to be looking for HR professionals with skills and experience in attraction, recruitment, or pay and reward.

Meanwhile, the public sector is expected to operate with the same levels of resource, or even less in areas where savings still need to be made. So, HR professionals with strengths in retention, employee engagement or outsourcing will be highly valued.

Another current private sector focus is pensions. Due to auto-enrolment legislation all employers must now enrol their employees in pension schemes.  This change impacted on the public sector to a lesser extent, since many public sector employers already offered pension schemes as standard. However, some private sector employers have still yet to join the system, meaning HR people with pensions skills will find them put to good use.

Assuming the UK’s economic recovery continues and the focus of each sector remains different, then the private and public sector might once again be very different entities. As it stands, however, each has its own attractions for ambitious HR professionals looking to consolidate their career.