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Searching for Jobs: Government vs. Private Sector

I’ve held hiring manager positions in both the public and private sectors.  Since I’m currently in a public sector organization, I’m frequently asked about the differences between looking and applying for jobs in governmental organizations versus private organizations.  Here are some key differences that can help guide your job search efforts.

All Government Jobs are Posted
Well, this is almost true.  There are a few high ranking positions in which people are appointed but for the most part public policy dictates that all jobs be posted and filled by the most competitive candidate.  This means it’s critical that your resume and cover letter very closely match all qualifications as posted on government job sites.  Typically, resumes are screened based primarily on how close they match the posted qualifications so you should be careful to use the same terms as the job posting when outlining your experience and accomplishments.

Research is Easier
Probably the biggest single advantage for the job seeker in the public sector is that, well, all information is public.  This means that virtually anything you want to know about a particular government entity is available online, usually on the website.  Consequently, there is no excuse for not knowing everything about that organization.  Surprisingly, I estimate that over 80% of all candidates I interview still know very little about my organization.  This is very good news for those who take the time to become knowledgeable because they really stand out.

Salary and Benefits Have Limited Negotiability
Unlike the private sector, where salary and even benefits can frequently be negotiated, there is little room for this in the public sector.  Typically, the salary range for a particular position is fixed and consists of between eight and ten “steps”.  While you may be able to negotiate which step you’re hired at, the salary range itself is non-negotiable.  Benefits by and large are fixed and the same for all employees with no flexibility.

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Interview Formats are Very Standardized
Public sector organizations tend to favor panel interviews, particularly for the initial interview, with standard, predetermined questions that are asked of all applicants.  The intent here is to judge all candidates by the same criteria to ensure objectivity.  This also means that you’ll encounter many commonly used questions, so be sure to research and practice these.  I’ve covered most of the common questions and how to answer them
in prior posts.

The bottom line here is that job searching in the public sector is sort of a mixed bag.  You pretty much know what you’re getting into in advance because research is easy, but this is counter balanced by the limited negotiability of salary and benefits.  Still, overall the public sector can be a great choice for qualified candidates due to the objective nature of the selection process, so be sure to include the government sector in your job search.

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