Public or Private Sector Work: The Eternal Question

Article excerpt

As public managers, we have heard the age-old comparisons of working in the public versus the private sector: one side is easier than the other, the private sector pays more money, and the public sector shelters poor performers. These generalizations go on and on like the Energizer Bunny. Most of us would be lying if we said we had never wondered what working on the other side of the employment fence would be like. The attributes and perspectives that local government managers believe to be true of either public or private sector employment can change if a manager does move to the other side of the employment fence. I should know. I made the switch.

This commentary shares perspectives, generalizations, and thoughts on my transition from public sector to private sector employment. I hope my observations can benefit managers who are facing a career-change decision point and are not sure what to expect. For me, this change in perspective was sometimes slow in evolution and sometimes felt like a stinging slap in the face.

I include personal experiences as examples because they seem the best way to make my points. These observations are loosely organized, roughly following the order in which the events occurred, and yet they do not fit neatly into a sequential development of thought because there sometimes was significant overlap in my realizations.

Personal Steps

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses and your personal situation. This is a critical first step in your personal study. If you are contemplating a career change to the private sector, ask yourself why. Here are four self-exploring questions that you might ask:

What are my strengths and weaknesses?

What do I like about my current situation?

What do I dislike about it?

Of what I like and dislike, how many of the factors are internal ones that relate to my personal attitude, and how many are external ones beyond my control?

The honest answers to these questions are critical because they provide the bases for evaluating whether or not a career change is worth considering. Managers experience job change, and most change is good and inevitable. It is a mistake to fight changes that should take place as we grow in our life experiences, It is a much larger mistake to force a job change based on faulty premises, reasons, and assumptions.

Beware of pride. If you are in a bad situation, is it one of your own creation, or are "they" really out to get you? Some managers should be fired, and some should never have been hired. My point is that if you are jumping, voluntarily or involuntarily, from job to job every other year, do you honestly know why?

A comment on self-analysis. Do not be so opposed to job change as to miss a good opportunity. None of us is so indispensable to an organization that we cannot be replaced. If you do not believe this, I propose that you are a poor manager for not empowering or training your subordinate employees to stand on their own. Those managers who best succeed in either sector do their homework. This "homework" is different from the self-analysis process I already have described in that it is more focused on the specific change or job opportunity(ies) being considered.

The phase of doing homework on a possible new job should come after the self-analysis phase. I emphasize this point because the man or woman who is smart enough to know that he or she can do the necessary homework and study for a job change, will also know enough to incorporate personal evaluation into the job opportunity assessment. Knowing as much as possible about a job change before undergoing it will prevent serious mistakes.

Sometimes, I have been recruited by a potential future employer without even realizing this fact. Once I had made this realization and started thinking seriously about a job change, though, the homework phase had begun. …