Management and business

Sector menu

The benefits of public and private sector careers

Public sector security or private sector salary? Which should you opt for when making your graduate management career choice?

Money, service, training and qualifications: weigh up the benefits of, and differences between, public and private sector graduate management schemes.
Top earners, those really high fliers you may aspire to join in the long-term, earn considerably more in the private sector.

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 sector payscales or the competitive market: how much will you be paid?

According to the Office of National Statistics, in April 2016 full-time workers in the public sector had higher median weekly earnings than private sector workers: £594 a week compared to £517. 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.

After all, to state the obvious, what you earn depends on what career stage you are at and the type of career you choose. If we take a look at what the NHS and the professional services and accountancy firm 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: around £23,000 (plus a location allowance where applicable). After completing the scheme, if taken on into a management position, 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 and social clubs.
  • New employees in a graduate role at PwC can expect somewhere above £25,000 as a base salary – internet forums suggest that starting salaries may be between £26,000 and £29,000. Graduates may also qualify for performance-related bonuses. They can create their own benefits package, which can include financial support for professional qualifications, study leave, 25 days’ holiday, a season ticket loan or a graduate loan of up to £7,000 (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.

It’s worth noting, however, that salaries within the financial industry do tend to be higher than in other sectors. If you become a graduate retail manager, for example, your starting salary is more likely to be around the £24,000 mark. According to the website Payscale, a retail management area manager (usually the next step up after being a store manager) can expect to earn up to £50,000.

In general, the public sector tends to have 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 often driven by trends within the labour market and what competitor organisations are offering.

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 Institute of Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) or the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW). If you join their assurance scheme, funding for the LPC if you join their law scheme or the professional qualifications offered by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries if you join their actuarial scheme.
  • In the public sector, the National Audit Office (NAO) provides Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) training, while the NHS graduate human resources scheme leads typically to a postgraduate diploma (CIPD) in human resources.

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? In theory, 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: Nicola Hanns featured in the 2017 edition of The Guardian UK 300. She graduated in 2011 and joined the Civil Service Fast Stream in 2015 after working as a marketing and company administrator for four years (and after completing a graduate diploma in law) and was whisked straight into a HR business partner role.

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 give you a steer, browse different companies and opportunities via the TARGETjobs employer hubs.