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Retaining financial stars is crucial for the public sector

Claire Brennan, managing consultant and public sector specialist at Change Recruitment Group, which has offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, discusses the impact that finance professionals originally from the private sector are having in the public sector.

Following the downturn in the economy and the onset of the age of austerity, the public sector and third sector organisations delivering public services made rigorous cutbacks. These cutbacks very often took the form of voluntary redundancies, and the uptake of these exit packages was so great that the required cost savings were made, but in an ironic twist, many finance departments were left exposed.

At the same time, there was the greatest choice of financial professionals on the jobs market we’ve seen in years. So, during the recession, many commercial finance professionals transferred into the public and third sectors, and that flight has possibly changed the face of their finance functions forever.

In many cases this perfect storm brought about the public sector’s first taste of the commercial finance professional. Brought in as interim cover, these candidates were able to add value and assist organisations through what was an extremely challenging time. We have seen individuals flourish in this environment, complementing the wealth of knowledge already in the sector.

There was work for them, for a start, but there were other reasons that those with a more commercial bent went to work in the public sector – and those are the reasons that they will stay. Public service felt like a safer place, and coming from an industry under fire, it felt good to be working for the benefit of society. In turn, this exposed the public sector to a new breed of candidate. The finance professional grounded in the commercial world. And the public sector liked it.

This isn’t to say that commercial finance professionals were the white knights that came along to ‘sort out’ the public sector’s financial woes. More that they brought something different to the table, had different expectations, and were hungry for a fresh challenge. Of course, there were things to learn about working in the public sector – particularly in terms of getting to grips with a new regulation regime with a higher emphasis on cost and results – but overall, they were able to bring some fresh thinking and an instinctive commercial approach.

As the public sector is under pressure to be more commercial, these people are adding tremendous value, but now that times are better, and the financial sector is making a comeback, how does the sector hold onto these professionals?

It may be hard to compete with commercial organisations in salary terms, but there are other ways to hold onto key team members. The public sector could be more aggressive in fighting for these professionals by promoting its myriad positive points – such as work/life balance and benefits – and of course the feel-good factor. Flexible working and part-time working are rare in the commercial sector, particularly in finance. Coupled with good pensions and increased job security, these public sector benefits make for a compelling package. In addition, the ability to see how good financial management can benefit the client-serving side of the business is a valuable cultural asset that shouldn’t be underestimated.

Theresa Shearer, CEO of ENABLE, is working with us to attract a finance director to join her executive team. She backs up this idea of ‘satisfaction reward’ over financial reward: “In an ever-changing sector, we can see the huge mutual benefits from attracting candidates from the commercial sector. We can offer an opportunity to a financial professional for whom the prospect of being rewarded in terms of making a real and tangible difference in vulnerable people’s lives, through efficient financial management, is increasingly attractive.”

The public sector and third sector bodies providing frontline services have a lot more positive attributes in their back pocket than they think. The organisations that think creatively will use these to retain the people that have made a huge difference to their organisations, and recognise that, even for a finance professional, money isn’t always the number one driver.


M Menon   06/10/2015 at 12:24

Very interesting article.

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