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Career shift

Making the shift from public to private Add to ...

For the thousands of civil servants who face receiving a pink slip in Ottawa’s budget-driven downsizing, this week’s Statistics Canada numbers showing an accelerated pace of hiring couldn’t come at a better time.

With not only federal but also provincial and municipal governments facing cuts, many career public-sector workers may have to move into corporate and industry jobs that have a different culture and expectations than government work.

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Career experts advise that even government employees who don’t expect the axe would be wise to reconsider how their skills could sell in the private sector.

Cheryl McGrath found that even her title required some translation for potential employers when she was let go from Canada Post in Ottawa’s previous round of belt-tightening in 2009.

“I was senior vice-president of transaction mail; I had to explain in interviews that means anything that requires a stamp, as opposed to direct mail or parcel post,” recalled Ms. McGrath, now district manager at software-services company EMC in Toronto.

“In the public sector, the end users are governments and citizens, in the private sector it is clients,” she noted.

“In the public sector it is a focus on stakeholder management; in the private sector it’s a focus on profit and loss.”

Public servants entering the private sector face challenges translating not only their titles but also their experience and skills, said Kelly McDougald managing director at consultancy Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions in Oakville, Ont.

“You have to be able to describe in your résumé and in interviews how the skill set you have can be applied in an environment where revenue growth is the definition of success,” Ms. McDougald said.

“For example, to be able to describe … that you were responsible for increasing productivity, driving incremental numbers, and increasing the consumption rates of programs.”

Public servants also have to get around some stereotypes about bureaucratic mind set, Ms. McDougald said. “A question that is likely to be asked is, can you take initiative and take the lead?”

It’s a process Robert Lapper went through when he got a call from a recruiter asking if he were interested in moving from his role as B.C.’s deputy minister of labour to a new position in Toronto.

“I had to list all the skills I had that are transferrable and how my achievements translate into things I could accomplish in my new role,” said Mr. Lapper, who became chief executive officer of the Law Society of Upper Canada in February.

His list included experience in managing complexity, a good understanding of public policy and relationships with government, managing multiple stakeholder relationships, and working under an increasingly constrained budget environment. And he went to interviews prepared with examples of how he might apply these skills in his new position.

Being able to articulate your skills beyond what’s on your résumé is more important in the private sector, said Jessica Pelt, a human resources consultant in Toronto.

In the public sector, especially for core government roles, the recruitment process tends to be competency-based, with specific requirements and predefined criteria, she said.

“Those applying are used to having their résumé speak very specifically about how their experience matches the job posting,” Ms. Pelt said.

But in the private sector, while there are still detailed questions about experience, “there is more opportunity to discuss overall skills and ability and how you can do the job based on what you’ve done in a similar role and to make a business case for how your experience could build the bottom line,” Ms. Pelt said.

Overall, public servants who find themselves out of a job should be able to fit in well in the private environment, said Linda Duxbury, professor of organizational health at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa. And many who aren’t facing pink slips may want to consider moving into the private sector to avoid the uncertainty of government downsizing, she said.

“I think a lot of talent is going to bail in the public sector. These are people with skills that the market needs,” she said.

While Ottawa is preparing to let go 20,000 workers, it will take as long as three years to play out, giving many the time necessary to refocus their career.

“Say you’re a petroleum engineer or scientist in environment or health services. There’s a lot of demand for those professions elsewhere and they are likely to say ‘I don’t need to wait to find out whether my job is safe,’” Prof. Duxbury said.

“I think you’re going to see an exodus of skills to Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

Older public servants may stay as long as possible to safeguard their pensions and benefits, so “the group most likely to go is those in Generation X. They believe that employers get as much loyalty as they deserve,” Prof. Duxbury said.

“You may make an assumption that public-sector employees can’t fit in to the private sector and won’t have anything to contribute, but that’s not my experience,” she added.

“My research shows that …you have enormous talent in the public service and it won’t prove difficult for them to find work and adapt to private-sector organizations.”

Prof. Duxbury’s advice to public servants facing the axe?

“The private sector is very pragmatic: If you have the skills they need, they’re going to say, ‘Come on over.’”

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