Career Clinic: Project manager in local government

Making the move from public sector to private can be fraught with risk.


I’m currently working as a project manager in local government but feel it is time to move on and improve my salary. I have considered the private sector, especially finance where the salaries seem good, and also contract working, but I’m not sure of the stability. What are my best options?

Panellist biographies

Simon Buehring is a project manager, consultant and PRINCE2 trainer. He is the founder of KnowledgeTrain, which offers PRINCE2 project management training in the UK and overseas. Simon has extensive project management experience within the IT industry in the UK and Asia and has worked in the financial, transport, health and education sectors.

Denise Plumpton joined the Highways Agency in January 2005 as director of information and a member of the executive board of the agency. Denise has a particular interest in helping organisations through periods of change and is on the strategy board of the Corporate IT Forum.

Steve Moran heads up QA-IQ’s Project and Programme Management Practice, with responsibility for managing and developing QA-IQ’s Project and Programme Management business. Steve has been a project and programme manager for over 25 years with positions across manufacturing, financial, services, utilities and airline sectors. In addition he has built highly successful professional services practices for global companies including Deloitte Consulting and Atos Origin.

Simon Buehring, founder of KnowedgeTrain, says:

Well, to consider a move to the finance industry in the light of the recent credit crunch and redundancies at investment banks hit by bad debts might sound rather rash.

However, city firms do pay very well for staff with highly marketable skills and IT project managers with solid experience from other areas are always in demand.

Most firms will look for people with sound business experience, however where the candidate’s technical experience stands out, exceptions will always be made.

Regarding contracting, I would say it is probably easier to find full time project management roles in finance rather than contract roles. That’s because the best paying contract roles are filled by highly technically experienced people who can also bring sound business knowledge and skills.

I would suggest your best option would be to seek a full time city role where you can gain some business experience and knowledge and perhaps look for contract roles in the future once you have some business experience as well.

Denise Plumpton, director of information, Highways Agency, says

The focus of the question seems to be on salary here but I’d suggest you look at the bigger picture. Contract work often seems to command higher rates of pay than permanent employment, but that’s in part because it is purely temporary and doesn’t come with the benefits of being an employee. When you consider that contractors don’t get paid for holiday or being ill, have to make their own provisions for pensions and the like and run the risk of the time between contracts, you start to see why the rates look attractive.

Salaries in the private sector are very variable and, typically, will reflect a range of factors including the scope and responsibility which comes with the role, plus the size of company, and hence the budget or size of project you’d be expected to manage.

Local government and central government organisations have the value-add of a strong focus on personal development and other non-salary benefits. So it’s worth bearing these in mind when you evaluate opportunities.

Work out what your priorities are at the moment and by all means have a look outside of local government. But try to look beyond the salary and see whether the nature of the role matches your longer term ambitions and likely job satisfaction.

Steve Moran, head of practice for project and programme management, QA-IQ, says

There are many attractive skills for a company looking to recruit a project manager with local government experience, including dealing with large capital projects, managing expectations of diverse stakeholders, and experience of detailed auditing and reporting.

However, there’s sometimes a concern that the knowledge base, standards, and perhaps terminology will be different between the public and private sectors. The first step you need to take is to make sure you’re qualified to the standards expected by industry, in particular PRINCE2 and APMP certification are often essential in the financial sector.

Companies will also expect a project manager to have financial and commercial awareness, so take the opportunity to make sure you’re up-to-date with current practices and spend some time researching different business structures. If you’re a member of an industry body, take the opportunity to network with project managers who are already working in the financial sector and benefit from their advice and experience.

If you’re armed with the right knowledge and skills you are far more likely to run successful projects, and there can be no greater guarantee of security than that.

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