Making the Career Jump from the Public Sector to the Private Sector

When I left the employ of the Federal government in 1980 after three years with the U.S. Department of Commerce-NOAA, I had no problem getting interviews and many job offers from major oil companies who were desperate for experienced geologists.

It’s a different environment today for public sector employees who want to transition to the private sector. In many areas, how government works is different from how businesses work, and the cultural shift necessary for that transition to be successful can be a stumbling block for some. This paradigm change requires the necessary time and commitment to grasp how business processes are integrated both vertically and horizontally and how they all work together to generate revenue and profit (˝meeting the numbers˝).

The good news is that since 9/11, many Federal government agencies have embraced the idea of horizontal integration, getting further away from rigid ˝silo˝ mentalities and segmented (in serial fashion rather than in parallel) responses to changing conditions. Dynamic exchanges and collaborative processes between agencies fosters cooperation that mitigates risk and threats, and can take advantage of opportunity more quickly. Such a shift in how government operates closes the gap that has made the public-sector-to-private-sector transition more problematic in the past.

OK, let’s hone in on some practical advice for making the jump to the private sector. First on the agenda: your résumé. To be clear, unless you’re applying for a fellowship or large grant, or an academic, research, or scientific position at the Ph.D. level–all of which demand a curriculum vitae (CV)–you use a résumé.  A résumé is a one- or two-page summary of your skills, experience, accomplishments, and education, and is short on duties and responsibilities. While a résumé is brief and concise–no more than a page or two, a curriculum vitae is a longer (at least two pages and usually many more) with additional detailed information. Too many online job banks and job web sites confuse the two documents and their purposes, so beware.

I’ve seen some of the forms the government forces upon workers to document every event of their professional work lives, and to be honest, that level of detail just won’t get the attention of a hiring manager. You have to boil it down to the major accomplishments, skills, and experience and leave the details for another time (such as the interview and the post-interview ˝Continuous Promotion Approach˝ I detail in Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0). You have to understand and be comfortable with the idea that the hiring process is a staged release of information that provides more detail as you move forward in the process; it’s not a document dump at your first opportunity.

Next in your approach is to determine which skills, knowledge, and expertise can transfer from the public sector to the private sector. All of that can be dropped into five different buckets:

  • Technical abilities/problem solving
  • Leadership/Relationship building
  • Communication clarity
  • Ability to influence people and projects
  • Business knowledge

Depending on your present position, duties, and responsibilities, some of these transferable skills categories may already be in good shape. For individuals exiting the military and seeking jobs in the private sector, communication clarity is typically one that needs much work. With the possible exception of the high-technology field, most business and interpersonal communication in a business environment does not revolve around obscure acronyms, abbreviations, initialisms, or phraseology (˝that’s a five by five˝). The language style in your cover letter and on your résumé must reflect that of the private sector hiring manager. Why risk losing his or her interest and attention with arcane terminology?

Another big problem for people transitioning from the public sector to the private sector (especially the military) is with relating job functions and accomplishments. Too many of those résumés list duties and responsibilities. What a hiring manager is interested in are accomplishments. You can see the bigger picture of a duty or responsibility by asking: ˝…and this duty resulted in…what? ˝ Your résumé must rise above the daily task list and enter the realm of accomplishments. For example, ˝Maintained several Abrams M1A1 tanks˝ then becomes ˝Maintained three of state-of-the-art Abrams M1A1 armored vehicles valued at $13M with XXX hours MTBF (mean time between failure) for a 92% uptime efficiency rating. ˝ Now THAT’s an accomplishment.

Another way to speak the language of the private sector hiring manager is to see how a particular skill set involves several individual skills. Several skills sets contribute to what is called a ˝core competency˝ (which is a combination of skill, knowledge, and expertise) which fulfills three important criteria:

  1. It is difficult for a competitor to imitate (unique skills, knowledge, experience)
  2. It can be repurposed for other products or markets (multiple application)
  3. It contributes to end user’s experienced benefits (it adds value to product/service)

Several core competencies contribute to what is called a ˝functional expertise˝ which is simply a higher level of integrated skills, knowledge, and expertise that work together. A functional expertise also reflects a career-long exposure to a particular job or functional area. Employees with high levels of functional expertise can create a competitive advantage or market dominance for an individual or company in the private sector. See the figure below for an illustration of this concept.

How skill sets make up a core competency; how core competencies make up a functional expertise, and how they all contribute to competitive advantage

To sum up:

  1. Lose the jargon and unfamiliar terminology in your cover letter and résumé.
  2. Categorize your transferable skills using the 5 buckets (quantify accomplishments whenever possible to speak to the hiring manager’s needs).
  3. Think transferable Skill Set –>Core Competency –>Functional Expertise.
  4. Think résumé, not CV; the hiring process involves a staged release of information; extend it past the interview stage by using the ˝Continuous Promotion Approach.˝
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