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Your guide to building a successful Finance & Accountancy career within the public sector

by Liam Cox | 22 May 2019

Are you interested in a Finance & Accountancy career within the public sector but not sure what opportunities are out there? Many Finance & Accountancy professionals like you are the same and are often surprised to hear that the sector has a wealth of opportunities. In this blog, Liam Cox, one of our expert Finance & Accountancy Recruitment Consultants talks through some of the questions he regularly gets asked by candidates, and offers his advice for achieving a successful career within the public sector.

Careers within the Finance & Accountancy sector can vary considerably, with jobs both in the private and the public sector. At Sellick Partnership we have a wealth of experience placing Finance & Accountancy graduates and highly skilled finance professionals into public sector organisations and are regularly asked about the career opportunities within the sector.

In this blog, I wanted to go through some of the questions I often get asked by candidates, and showcase the public sector as a rewarding career choice for Finance & Accountancy professionals of all levels of seniority and experience.

What is the best way a junior candidate or recent graduate can get a Finance & Accountancy role within the public sector?

There are various ways a candidate can begin their Finance & Accountancy career within the public sector, ranging from apprenticeships straight through to university degrees. Here is some advice on a few of the most common routes into the profession.

Straight from school: as the Finance & Accountancy jobs market becomes increasingly more competitive, more-and-more public sector organisations are choosing to recruit candidates straight from school, offering school leavers an early career opportunity within the sector. This is beneficial for two reasons. Firstly, school leavers will generally demand a lower salary than an experienced candidate and secondly, businesses have the ability to train these candidates as they see fit.

This is a great opportunity for any candidates currently in school that may not be interested in further education. Opportunities like this are coming around fairly often, particularly within local authorities who are very keen due to the financial pressures they have with regards to recruitment, but also because the apprenticeship levy dictates that a certain amount of apprentices must be employed in the finance function. The best way to find out about opportunities like this are to contact the Council directly (normally HR), or have a look on apprenticeship websites/job boards or the government website.

From college: this is one of the more common routes for candidates that are looking to begin their career within Finance & Accountancy. Some colleges will offer candidates the opportunity to study for an entry level finance qualification (such as AAT, Association of Accounting Technicians). These courses generally require candidates to learn on the job within a workplace via an apprenticeship.

Candidates that decide to go to college can also choose to study study A Levels or BTECs in Finance & Accountancy, giving them an in-depth and thorough knowledge before entry level roles. This is a relatively common occurrence on most entry level candidate CVs and candidates with qualifications like this are highly sought after.

From university: there is no written rule to say candidates interested in a Finance & Accountancy career must attend college or university but it will definitely add some value to a CV. Public sector employers are looking for candidates that are academic and can do the role advertised, so a decent degree in maths (or a related subject) will help.

If you are thinking about a career in finance and have recently graduated, you may be interested in reading this blog looking at whether a graduate scheme or a graduate job is right for you.

How can a senior Finance & Accountancy candidate secure a role within the public sector?

A senior candidate looking to secure a role in the public sector would need to put some real thought into a couple of things. First of all, the kind of organisation and individual sector they would like to go into (as each presents different challenges, be that financial pressures or the different kinds of stakeholders they would need to get involved with). Candidates also need to consider the size of the organisation they want to work for and the value they could add to ensure they choose the right workplace for them.

A well-written CV highlighting duties and responsibilities as well as key achievements will really make candidates stand out from the crowd. A well-written cover letter that is to the point is also beneficial to compliment a candidate’s application. It is important that candidates explain why this role takes their interest, what value they could add and why previous achievements confirm this. It really shows commitment to the recruiter or hiring manager reading the CV and proves that the applicant has applied for relevant roles and has not just sent their CV out randomly.

For more help on finessing your CV, check out our handy CV guide and downloadable CV template here.

Senior candidates seeking a move into the public sector can find many opportunities to break in, more so now than ever. Plenty of organisations are seeing the benefit of bringing in a commercial mindset and approach to the finance function, particularly within housing associations and the not-for-profit sector, where the approach differs slightly from other public sector organisations.

Do Finance & Accountancy candidates in the public sector have to be ACA, ACCA, CIPFA or CIMA qualified?

As with all career paths within Finance & Accountancy, the more senior the candidate, the greater the need for them to be qualified, and the public sector is no exception. There is currently a lack of highly skilled qualified candidates in the public sector, which offers candidates that are committed and willing to take this route a great opportunity.

At the junior end however there are plenty of roles that candidates that are not qualified can thrive in, including Assistant Accountants, Finance Officer, Assistant Management/Financial Accountants, or general clerical roles. Good organisations also know it is crucial to ‘grow from within’, so we are finding a lot of development roles where organisations are offering candidates funding or study time towards exams.

How can Finance & Accountancy candidates get qualified?  

Candidates can qualify by studying with a relevant exam body (ACCA, ACA, CIMA for example) and then sitting a series of exams. It is a fairly lengthy and rigorous process to become a fully qualified accountant with a number of different levels which will have different exams throughout the process, each of which can be expensive.

More-and-more public sector businesses are offering study packages as they know it is crucial to ‘grow from within’. This is beneficial for obvious reasons (it allows businesses to mould employees to their way of working), but by investing in the candidate it often means they have a greater degree of commitment. This way also allows candidates to learn from highly experienced professionals, whilst studying, a win-win situation. The best way to find opportunities like this is to keep an eye out on job boards for ‘assistant’ or ‘trainee’ roles. Candidates should also let recruiters work on their behalf which can often speed up the process.

The most common qualifications within the sector are CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants), ACA (Association of Chartered Accountants) and ACCA (Association of Certified Chartered Accountants). A CIMA qualification will likely lead to a Management Accountant/Business Partner/Finance Manager role, ACA is likely to lead to an Auditing role while ACCA has a couple of opportunities including roles such as Management Accountant, Finance Manager, Financial or Business Analyst, Financial Consultant etc.

Typical Finance & Accountancy roles within the public sector

Careers in finance are varied, and the job roles and titles within the public sector are largely the same as in other sectors across the profession. Generally junior candidates will start out as an Accounts Assistant, Finance Assistant, Assistant Accountant or Junior Accountant, similar to the private sector. Within the public sector however, candidates may be exposed to a wider remit and of course face different challenges and obstacles that may not present themselves in the private sector.

Within the public sector, candidates can aspire to levels such as a Management/Financial Accountant, Finance Business Partner, Finance Team Leader, etc. These roles are definitely achievable with hard work and determination, but candidates need to have the drive to learn and soak information from more experienced colleagues. There are always growing organisations or restructures that will present opportunities, so it is about making the most of them if and when possible.

What career progression is there in public sector finance? Is it suitable for an ambitious candidate looking to get to the top?

As in any industry, some organisations will be better than others in regards to career progression, however most organisations I work with offer great opportunities for candidates. For example, larger public sector organisations will generally have a set path for progression, and this will usually be discussed at interview and candidates will be given all the resources they need to progress. This route may be a better choice for ambitious candidates looking to progress quickly.

For candidates working within smaller organisations progression may not be as quick. However, a huge benefit to this is that candidates will be exposed to a wider remit, feel more valued, and perhaps most importantly, experience a more hands-on approach. This could involve having a greater focus on training, or simply working closely with an experienced colleague. It is rare to get this type of exposure with a senior professional within a large organisation, and this can often give candidates with SME experience the edge later in their career.

I have however experienced situations with some of my SME candidates where the top role in their organisation is occupied, causing them to seek employment elsewhere. For that reason, SME businesses may be better suited to candidates that are happy working at a slightly slower pace. It is therefore essential that candidates hoping to secure a Finance & Accountancy career within the public sector assess their progression options thoroughly.

Whatever the business size, most Finance & Accountancy professionals I recruit generally work their way up from junior levels within the same organisation and only choose to leave when they have reached the highest level available to them.

I hope this blog has alleviated some concerns candidates may have around working within the public sector. As with any job, there are positives and negatives, and it is for each individual candidate to decide whether the public sector is right for them, and what route to take.

If you would like help securing your first Finance & Accountancy job within the public sector, or are an experienced professional looking to move I would be more than happy to help. You can contact me, or a member of our Finance & Accountancy recruitment team in your area today.

Alternatively, for more career advice or tips on securing your next role, check out our candidate resources section.