Transitioning from Private to Public Sector

Heather Krasna is the author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service, and the Director of Career Services at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.

Many people have considered moving from corporate careers to public service, especially because government has a reputation for offering more secure jobs (including preferences for re-hiring laid-off staff, some union protections, etc.). However, it’s important to consider whether your personality is a good fit for government, whether you are considering transitioning for the right reasons, and whether your skills would match well with government jobs.

Government employs 22 million people in the U.S., and there are many levels of government, ranging from small townships and counties to vast federal bureaucracies. There were 87,500 different local governments as of 2002. The types of skills needed and the types of jobs available are similarly vast. But many government employees have certain things in common:

  • A desire to serve the public good, whether that means keeping rivers clean, roads paved, or the nation safe
  • Transparency—being able to work in an environment where any email you send, and even your salary, are public knowledge
  • An openness to listening to citizens, who are your ultimate customer
  • A knowledge that you are accountable to your fellow taxpayer, and that your salary was paid for by your neighbors and so it should be used well
  • A willingness to work hard, even for wages that are sometimes lower than comparable salaries in the private sector
  • Often, an ability to keep working on solving society’s problems, with the knowledge that change can be incremental and you can’t always see your results
  • A belief in merit-based promotion and meritocracy, and a dislike of nepotism or favoritism

Yes, these qualities may fly in the face of the negative stereotypes many people have of government workers. But they are what I have seen frequently among people who commit themselves to government work. If you are transitioning to a government career, you should ask yourself—are you the right person for the career? Or are you only looking for what seems to be a safer job?

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Nicholas Charney

Heather – interesting timing on your post. I made the transition from private to public sector for the financial stability but quickly found out that it comes at a tremendous cost. After a year of slugging it out at a job I hated I finally started to turn it around.

I think your list is accurate but would add that there is also an undercurrent of fiscal conservatism in terms of government spending, in the circles that I run in, no one wants to see wasteful spending, especially when we look at how we could save by embracing collaborative technology more quickly.

Finally, I just wanted to mention that I will be sharing the story of my transition on August 10th in Washington DC, more details can be found here:



Heather – It seems as government being the safer job is no longer the case – at least at the state level. This is truly unfortunate considering state government is paying less than the Feds or private sector. This makes attracting a retaining employee difficult! Government at the state level (for many states) has shrunk and many of the people who have left are finding themselves in the unemployment line. The ones who remain find our pay reduced even further as we are furloughed.

I agree – government isn’t for everyone, and people should ask themselves the questions you mentioned. Otherwise, I suspect they will be looking for the next job opportunity as soon as they land their government gig!

Heather Krasna, MS

Tricia, you are absolutely (and unfortunately) right. A lot of layoffs, furloughs, and reductions in hours have taken place in government, especially local and state governments. It seems the economic crash impacted government on a delayed time cycle as tax revenues impact the budgets later on. People in government whose jobs were tied to fees from construction, like city planners, have probably taken the hardest hit.


I’d also argue that there is the issue of bureaucracy.

Gov’ts range in size from 200,000 employees at Dept of Homeland Security to 20 in a small town.

I always tell people that bureaucracy is a function of # of employees. So if moving from a 100 person company….a 10,000 person agency may feel bureaucratic. But if move from a large company to govt agency may be smooth.

Heather Krasna, MS

Harlan, I’m so glad you added to this discussion. I tried for a little bit of a controversial post, and you have added a lot of nuance to this. Thanks!


AJ- Good point! I’ve often wondered how people hired by Gov’t right out of college who retire at age 50 enjoy their second careers in private sector! We have plenty of people when I talk to them upon exiting our agency, they mention they are going to start a second career in the private sector. I suspect it will be an adjustment as I’ve found going from private sector to public sector somewhat of an adjustment.

Peter Sperry

@Tricia — Having gone through several sectors (political, appointed public, civil service public, private profit, and private non-profit), I can say one of the most avaluable aspects of the transitions is learning to appreciate the contributions of each and discard all the preconcieved notions one builds up. I would also point out these sectors are very large and experiences vary. Retiring from a government job and returning the next week as a contractor is not quite the same as being riffed from a salaried position and finding employment as a commission based marketing rep.

Orisha Hayes

Thanks for the post Heather! I know for me coming from private to public sector was an adjustment. However, I’m glad that I made the decision because of not only the job security and benefits; but because I knew my hard work would be valued in the government. At the Fortune 500 company that worked for, there was salary cap for admin employees. In order to increase my salary, I would’ve had to go into sales, which I was not interested in. So I decided to take those skills/experience and apply it to my job at NIH.

Nichole Henley

I appreciate this post and its comments. And may I add that I HATE it when people claim they work for government because of security. I automatically think “so what are you bringing to the table then??” And I often wonder how productive they are. YEs, we all need a job, but I also need a coworker that I can count on who is just as passionate, productive, and feels a sense of urgency to get the job done. No matter when you see the results.
I would say that in a federal job, you also have to widen the scope of your perspective. It’s easy to get boxed in the office you work at but the impact is much larger. How are your communication skills? What are you doing to know the business? It’s important to keep your skills fine tuned and to constantly plug into the politics, the news, meetings, and the guy in the cube next to you. This helps to waste time on a topic that is of no interest to leadership, to direct a project in a way that is more meaningful to current events, or even to understand how your project will afffect federal wide.