A generation or two ago there was a preconception that public sector workers had a cushier, less stressful working life than those working in the private sector. But whether that is true now (if it ever was) remains open to debate, especially in the age of cuts: yes, in general, public sector organisations often espouse more flexible working initiatives than private companies, but gone are the days when you could assume a lifetime of service in the public sector would be traded for a gold-plated pension on retirement.
Public v. private: how easy is it to get a job?
According to the Institute of Student Employers’ (ISE’s) 2018 annual survey, the number of candidates applying for graduate roles in the public sector is much smaller than those applying to other sectors: 12 per vacancy as opposed to an average of 41 across all sectors. It’s notable that the accountancy and professional services sector attracted 29 applications per vacancy and consulting and business services 53. However, the ISE only surveys its members and they only received responses from 138 employers and so it is probably not a representative picture of graduate recruitment as a whole.
Public sector payscales or the competitive market: how much will you be paid?
According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2017 full-time workers in the public sector had higher median weekly earnings than private sector workers: £599 a week compared to £532. However, as the ONS points out, this broad-brush figure encompasses roles across the private sector, which includes more very lowly and very highly paid employees than are in the public sector, and so the figures do not represent differences in pay between comparable jobs. So this does little to help us work out the differences for graduate roles within the public and private sector.
The ISE, meanwhile, reports that the median graduate salary for its public sector employer members is £17,374 – the lowest amount across all of the sectors it surveyed. Accountancy and professional services employers pay a median of £24,635, consulting and business services employers £27,000, IT employers £31,017 and investment banks/fund managers £32,900. However, the ISE itself admits that this is not representative of the entire graduate labour market.
After all, to state the obvious, what you earn depends on what career stage you are at and the type of career you choose. It may be more helpful if you compare the salaries of individual private and public sector employers you are interested in. For example, if we take a look at what the NHS, McDonald’s and PwC has to offer in terms of graduate salaries, we find:
- Starting salaries in the NHS in England are the same across any of its management training schemes, including the finance scheme: £23,818 (plus a location allowance where applicable). After completing the scheme, if taken on into a management position, the NHS says you can expect a salary between £27,000 and £37,000. Future earnings can reach £90,000 as a director or £100,000 plus as a chief executive. The benefits package includes 27 days’ holiday (plus bank holidays), a paid-for study package and study leave, the NHS pension, financial discounts on specific products/services and sports clubs, childcare vouchers and a season ticket loan.
- Internet forums suggest that new employees in a graduate role at PwC can expect £27,500 as a base salary in London and a lower figure elsewhere in the UK. Graduates may also qualify for performance-related or annual bonuses. They can create their own benefits package, which can include financial support for professional qualifications, study leave, 25 days’ holiday and an extra day at Christmas, a season ticket loan or a graduate loan (conditions apply), a range of pension plans and insurance policies, and discounts on services such as gym membership. Once professional qualifications have been gained, internet forums suggest that a typical salary is £40,000–£55,000 and that partners (senior-level executives) will earn £200,000–£300,000 as a minimum, with many earning more than half a million.
- Trainee managers at McDonald’s can earn between £22,000–£25,000 and, in time, are eligible for performance bonuses. Benefits can include: six weeks' holiday; life assurance cover; pension scheme; private healthcare for you, your spouse and any dependent children up to 21 years of age (after six months); company car or cash alternative after six months as a business manager; paid sabbaticals (conditions apply; financial discounts from retailers; childcare vouchers; and a meal allowance. Internet forums suggest that general restaurant managers can earn around £31,000 and area managers £42,000 (but these figures are based on a small sample).
In general, the public sector has well-publicised pay bands for different levels of jobs, while salary negotiations in the private sector are more 'private', if you'll excuse the pun, and are often driven by trends within the labour market and what competitor organisations are offering. This remains the case even with the publication of gender pay gap information, which is legally required of companies with over 250 employees.
Public or private: which is the best for continuing education?
If we take a quick look at private and public sectors, we can see that both give opportunities for training.
- In the private sector, professional services firm EY offers training based around gaining the professional qualification appropriate for the job role: for example, qualifications with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants if you join their business consulting graduate programme and the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries if you join their actuarial programmes.
- In the public sector, the National Audit Office (NAO) provides training for the Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) qualification.
The training and support on offer in both the public sector and private sector is provided by a mixture of formal training sessions, on-the-job learning, work-shadowing and coaching.
Can you switch between one sector and the other?
Can you learn your craft in the public sector then cash in by moving into the private sector later in your career? Yes, but you may have to sharpen up your CV to prove you understand the hard-nosed realities of working within a competitive business environment.
Similarly, private sector workers looking to make the most of perceived better public sector perks (flexible hours, good childcare, for example) may find it’s harder to switch than they thought. Cuts in the public sector mean every post is under scrutiny and all new appointments have to be justified.
It can be done though:
- Maxine Bulmer, who features in the 2019 edition of the UK 300, is now director of cyber security at CGI but started her career working for HM Revenues & Customs.
- Two years previously, an earlier edition of the publication featured Nicola Hanns, who joined the Civil Service Fast Stream in 2015 after working as a marketing and company administrator for four years .
Is public sector work really so far removed from private sector practices?
Maybe not – take the Civil Service Fast Stream programme as an example: traditionally, in the course of your training you’d spend time in different areas of public sector work and possibly experience private sector placements as well. You could be managing million pound-plus budgets, dealing with complex laws and having to turn reports around quickly, accurately and to deadline, possibly for publication to a very wide audience.
Private sector organisations are not isolated from the public sector, either; management consultants work with businesses and organisations covering energy and property, telecoms and transport, healthcare and education, in both public and private arenas.
Still confused about the best option?
The only right answer as a career choice is the one that suits your circumstances and what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning. To gain a sense of what would suit you, browse different companies and opportunities via the TARGETjobs employer hubs.