3 Differences between Working in the Public and Private Sector

In general most welfare states like England support a large public sector that employs up to 60% of the overall workforce. This makes the government the single largest employer in the country. In fact, there are a number of sizable organisations within the public sector itself which dominate the board. For example, the NHS currently has over a million people directly on its payroll and according to the reliable wiki.answers.com, the only organisations that are larger are the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Wal-Mart supermarket and the Indian Railways!

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Apart from the political debate about the optimum size of the public sector I wanted to have a  quick think about how the inevitable job cuts in the public sector that all political leaders have discussed recently will be absorbed. Obviously there will be a human dimension to this story as well. A lot is made of the divide between the public and private sectors. How real is this? Will it be a barrier to entry for many who will be faced with eviction from the public sector? And what are the main differences between working in the public and private sectors?

1.  Salary?

Well, this is an interesting one. Although the knee jerk reaction is to say head to the private sector for higher salaries, this isn’t uniformly the case. In fact the truth is more nuanced. It is often the case that at the lower end of the career ladder salaries are higher in the public sector but as you progress through to more senior levels, things switch, and compensation for more senior levels is superior in the private sector. In addition, there is the tricky comparison between salary and salary package. The total package offered could include pension, travel, healthcare and other benefits and obviously this can vary considerably – so it’s really not a straightforward case of compare and contrast.

2. Stability?

Historically, tenure or “the job for life” was a big feature for the public sector but things are changing now. Obviously those with permanent contracts may be “safe” but the last few years have seen a great shift towards renewable annual contracts and things look set to continue in that vein.

3. Motivation?

Everyone’s motivation for turning up to work in the morning is different. But are there trends that can identify overarching motivations according to sector? According to Plato – the answer is yes! In his magnum opus “The Republic” he describes the public servant as someone who works to further the public interest without any self interest at all. Not all academics see it that way and there is a definite school of thought that says that the human “self interest” mode operates even in the most dedicated public sector worker – the same as anyone who works in the private sector. What do you think?

If you’re interested in looking into this further, you might like to have a look at an article on the topic by Lise Valentine (VP and Director of Research at The Civic Federation) and Richard Mattoon (economist) which formed the basis for this blog.

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Categories: Articles for Job Seekers, Public Sector and Charities


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3 Comments on “3 Differences between Working in the Public and Private Sector”

  1. Henry S
    June 21, 2010 at 7:07 am #

    The public sector has definitely bridged the gap as far as workplace professionalism goes. While I am now in the private world, I can recall the ‘dark old days’ of the public sector, which tellingly enough coincided with the ‘job for life’ concept.

    Managers now have far higher expectations, and the public world has also woken up and realised that they’re competing with the private sector for quality people. It’s a win for the governing bodies, a win for employees, and a win for the public.

    • July 4, 2010 at 7:54 am #

      Thanks for your message, Henry. Would you go as so far to recommend the public sector to others?

  2. Henry S
    July 4, 2010 at 8:10 am #

    While it depends largely on the orginisation, I would most certainly generally recommend today’s public sector.

    Job for life? No. But a workplace where one can develop? The signs point to yes…

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