How to Make a Career Change from the Federal Government to the Private Sector
Are you a federal government employee thinking about transitioning from the federal government to the private sector?
It’s a common situation. In fact, many federal employees are eager to move into a position in the private sector and start making more money with less hassle right away.
But making that transition isn’t as easy as some people may have you believe. Some of the interpersonal skills you’ve acquired working for the federal government don’t apply in the same way in the private sector.
Federal employees, especially in Washington DC, are masters of navigating bureaucracy, but they’re not always masters at the kind of personal networking that equates to success in the private sector. If you want to transition from the federal government to the private sector, you have a lot to think about.
The Benefits of Private Sector and Federal Employment
You’ve probably already considered the pros and cons of private sector employment as contrasted with federal employment. You might not have thought of everything, though.
The biggest benefit offered by a federal Civil or Foreign Service job is the benefits package. Few private companies offer benefit packages comparable to what you’d have in a federal career.
The biggest piece of that benefit package is the retirement plan. Fewer than 20% of private companies now offer a traditional pension plan. In fact, Millennials might not even know what a pension entails. All federal government employees have pension plans to participate in. While they’re not as generous as they used to be, government pension plans are almost always better than the private sector alternatives.
Job security is another big federal employment advantage that can’t be matched in the private sector. Of course, even federal jobs are less secure than they were in the past, but they’re still far more secure than private sector jobs.
Not only do most private companies reserve the right to fire you anytime for any reason, some of them go out of business—leaving you out of work. The federal government in the United States has been in continuous operation for 243 years and counting. Most private sector companies don’t even come close to that kind of longevity.
The federal government offers other benefits too: Its health insurance coverage is rarely matched by a plan from the private sector. Time off benefits are also considerably more generous than you’d see in the private sector.
The biggest benefits of working in the private sector are the greater earning potential and the variety of experiences available to someone working in the private sector. The pace of change is usually faster in the private sector, which can be hectic but also exciting. You may be able to innovate more in the private sector, and you don’t have to tolerate as much paperwork or tedious processes as you may experience working in the federal government.
The Drawbacks of Both Private Sector and Federal Employment
One of the drawbacks to staying in a federal job for your entire career is the limitation on your retirement benefits. Yes, you’ll have a solid pension plan as a federal employee. But if you have a first career as a federal employee and a second career in the private sector, you can collect retirement benefits from both.
Even though many of the benefits of federal employment are great, the private sector often offers unique benefit packages that include perks that are unheard-of for federal employees. These vary from company to company, of course, but some of the perks offered by private companies include things like company cars, financial bonus and incentive programs, nap rooms, and facilities that aren’t available elsewhere. Google, for example, is famous for their gourmet cafeteria and relatively luxurious facilities on its campus.
Federal employees often deal with salary caps and rigidly defined career paths. In the private sector, you may be able to write your own check if you’re good at “the game.” Many of the tips in the rest of this post are aimed at upping your game when it comes to dealing with private employers.
Making the Leap: Rebranding Yourself and Repurposing Your Skills and Education for the Private Sector
If you’ve given the pros and cons of each sector a careful weighing and have decided to transition from federal employment to the private sector, congratulations! You’re in for an exciting career change.
One of the most important things you can do is take stock of your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. What skills have you acquired during your period of government service? What goals have you accomplished, and what personality traits made it possible for you to accomplish those goals?
Where do your talents lie? Are you a good communicator? Are you well-organized, efficient, and fast? Are you able to come up with win-win solutions during periods of conflict?
All these skills and talents are in demand in the private sector, but you need to think about your career change from the perspective of a marketer selling a product—and you’re the product. What are your benefits and features?
This might seem simple enough, and you may already know the answers to all these questions. But don’t rush into editing your federal resume and applying for jobs. Chances are you may benefit from some career change coaching and advice from a company with people who specialize in helping employees transition from federal employment to the private sector.
Also, unlike a product, you have a soul and a heart. These also need to be accounted for when making your transition. What kind of work do you find satisfying? What kind of contribution do you want to make to the world through your career? What kind of person are you at heart?
When you inventory your strengths, weaknesses, and what you want from a career change, the transition process becomes much easier. Most people don’t have much experience taking this kind of stock of their careers or their values, though. Worse, they get distracted by their baggage from the past, which gives rise to insecurities.
The best advice anyone can give them is to ask for help and informed, unbiased insight. Career success companies like Your Edge for Success YES offer that kind of help. Using a variety of tools, a career change coach can help you find out what job markets are best for you when you account for these factors. YES can also help you come up with the best strategies for approaching those markets.
This involves a lot of practical, nuts-and-bolts work like determining the right mix of marketing tools and strategies you need—and then writing your cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile. Depending on how long you’ve been working for the federal government, you might not even have a LinkedIn profile—but you need one to get found by headhunters and validated for employers.
You’ll want to rebrand yourself through all these channels, but you’ll also want to start tapping into your network of personal and professional contacts. You have a network, but you might not be aware of how big it is or how to leverage it. We can help with that, too.
You’ll also find out more about the hidden job market. Did you know that more than 38% of the jobs that get filled every day are never advertised?
We can show you how to tap into your network so that you can find out about these jobs, as well as the ones that are advertised. But it all starts by first making a clear assessment of the perfect personalized strategy for you.
The Intangible Aspects of Your Career
What are the intangible aspects of your career? We alluded to that in the last section, but we’d like to delve more into that topic now. Basically, what we’re talking about here are the things that make your job rewarding that don’t involve salary or benefits.
The kind of work culture you’ll be participating in is one intangible aspect of your career. For example, do you work better with lots of interaction with your co-workers? Or do you do better working independently as much as possible?
How much recognition do you need to feel satisfied at work, and which companies provide that kind of recognition? Some people are fine with an “Attaboy!” here and there, but other people need award and recognition programs to receive the kind of validation they need at work.
What kind of management style do you prefer? Do you want a lot of autonomy at work? Do you want to use your judgment and make a lot of your own decisions? Or do you prefer working with a manager who takes more of a hands-on approach and provides you with detailed instructions and constant feedback?
There are no wrong answers to any of these questions, by the way. They’re all just a matter of gaining self-knowledge and then taking that self-knowledge into account when looking at job opportunities in the private sector. Most people don’t account for these things when considering career change to another field, and that’s where some help and guidance from career success specialists can help. The last thing you want is to leave a job that is less than ideal for one that turns out to be a nightmare, because you didn’t vet them or know yourself.
What You Need to Do to Prepare for Your Transition
You need to do several things to get ready for your transition. The first thing is to start thinking about your brand. And if you think that a brand is just something for a major corporation like Coca-Cola or Ford, we recommend taking a look at The Brand You 50 by Tom Peters. That book will give you an idea of what it means to have a personal brand.
In your job search, you don’t want to sound like an expert on how to work for the government, and that’s the mistake that most resumes from former government personnel make. Instead, you want to tailor your experience and present it in a way that you sound like an expert in the field you’re transitioning into.
Spend some time on the Internet reading about your field’s newest developments. Relate these developments to your experience. Keep these changes in mind when you start the next step of preparation: creating cover letters, resumes, and a LinkedIn profile.
When it comes to creating fresh cover letters and resumes, we recommend getting the advice of career change experts. Most people don’t have experience in the realm of creating these documents, and getting expert help is the savvy thing to do. One of the things an expert will do when helping you set up these documents is to look at how your education and experience apply to the private sector—especially in the fields you want to work in.
Speaking of education, many people in the government are behind in areas of technology. The federal government typically lags behind the rest of the economy in terms of technology, probably because of the inherent bureaucracy involved in making change.
What does this mean to someone making a transition? It means you might need to take some classes or read some books to get caught up with the latest technical advancements in your field. A professional career change coaching company like Your Edge for Success YES can help you decide which subjects you might need to bone up. We can also provide advice about where to get this educational development affordably and quickly, if you need it.
Finally, you need to take a hard look at your communication, interviewing, and networking skills. One of your goals when interviewing for a new position in the private sector will be to take some control of the job interview without seeming overbearing or off-putting. This is important for five reasons:
- Reduction of nerves. You will be less nervous when you are asking questions and listening to answers in a “give and take” than if you are getting grilled.
- Valuable intel. You will gain valuable insight into what the company needs in a new employee that will enable you to sell yourself as a solution to their specific problems.
- Making friends and influencing people. You will be able to establish rapport with your interviewer by getting into their world and empathizing with their challenges.
- Clarity. You will be able to get specifics about what kind of timeframe you should have for follow-through on the part of prospective employers, among other things.
- More offers! You will find out what would stop them from pursuing you as a candidate and assist them in resolving those concerns to their satisfaction so that they can make you an offer.
If you’re like many federal government employees, you may not have sat down to a job interview for quite some time—and you may be used to a more confining interview context. Some role-playing and practice with YES’ Interview AikidoTM technique can sharpen your interviewing skills.
The kind of networking you’re used to doing with other government employees might have limited applicability when networking with people in the private sector. Boning up on that skillset is also a great idea when preparing for your career change.
Taking the Leap: Making the Actual Transition from the Federal Government to the Private Sector
Taking the leap means entering the job market—accepting that, in a sense, you’re a product that you’re trying to sell. The big difference is that, unlike a product, you’re a person with beliefs, a value system, and personal and professional goals that must be considered.
Our suggestion is to make your transition as stress-free and likely to have a happy ending as possible (i.e., not just getting a new job but getting a new job that you love). To speed up, ease, and guide the process, work with a team like Your Edge for Success YES. We can help you do the following:
- Recognize your core values as they apply to finding a job transition.
- Understand your "features" and "benefits" to an employer.
- Identify your skills, strengths, and talents.
- Determine where the best market for “brand you” is.
- Strategize on how you’re going to market yourself to those employers.
- Help you understand how a cover letter for career change is structured.
- Determine if you need a career change cover letter or a career change resume.
- Leverage your networks, especially your “hidden” network that you don’t even know you have.
- Develop a new network that will champion you and advocate for you.
- Collaborate on your career change cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile.
- Teach you Interview AIkidoTM communication strategies to address employer objections and gain control over your interview.
- Take your inner game to the next level so you’ll be confident instead of second-guessing yourself as the career change unfolds.
Your Edge for Success offers a free 30-minute consultation that includes a review of your resume, as well as your goals and expectations. We will share the best job transition strategies to accomplish them. Contact us so we can schedule a time to talk.
Authors: Michael Akbar (Career Coach) and Katherine Akbar (YES President and Chief Editor)
Your Edge for Success YES is a career success company in Washington DC Metro Area serving clients worldwide.
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