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Sector Insight: Public Sector

April 2014

A thaw in hiring freezes means some interesting finance roles are coming up right across the public and not-for-profit sectors, on both a permanent and a temporary basis

Central and local government
This year has brought a thaw in central and local government hiring freezes after several years of austerity, sparking demand for finance professionals. Due to the better economic outlook, individuals also feel more confident about moving and this has further contributed to new openings being created.
Central government departments have been rolling out new systems and projects that require the support of finance staff. For example, the Department of Energy & Climate Change has been hiring finance personnel to support some big initiatives. Some interesting central-government finance roles are arising at assistant director level for candidates with forward-planning and strategic skills. Since they want the best, employers are particularly keen to recruit newly qualified accountants who trained with the Big 4 accountancy firms. They must compete for them with large companies and the banks, but fortunately they can offer salaries that are comparable with the corporate sector, if not the financial services industry. An assistant director in central government may earn £80,000 and enjoy a good benefits package. Government roles tend to attract professionals who are politically engaged or committed to public service.
Local authorities continue to watch their budgets closely although they have been hiring skilled finance professionals into positions that they have not been able to fill internally. In particular, they have been listing jobs within their housing departments. Another noticeable trend is that the third-party service providers used by local authorities have also been hiring accountants.

The NHS has been a very active employer of finance professionals over the past couple of years and this continues to be the case in 2014. As a result, there is a shortage of candidates with health experience. The interim market in London is thriving because finance professionals can command high day rates and are less willing to take permanent positions. Outside the capital, the trend is more towards hiring permanent staff since day rates are lower. The NHS is very proactive about recruiting finance professionals and has been using digital campaigns to attract candidates from other organisations.

Last year, the education sector invested significantly in accounting professionals to support the new academies. This demand has levelled off in 2014 since many of the academies are focused on resolving internal issues, so hiring in both higher education and further education is stable.

Housing associations
Restructuring is a persistent theme in the housing sector and this means there is a steady demand for finance professionals. Accountants with investment appraisal experience and strategic planning skills are particularly sought after to support on-going housing development. Associations are also investing in treasury professionals to help them raise finance. System skills continue to be important and accountants with knowledge of Brix project management software are prized. Meanwhile, the transition to International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) means that housing associations are on the hunt for technically up-to-date newly qualified accountants and professionals with prior IFRS knowledge. At Hays, we expect this trend to continue throughout 2014.

Recruitment within the charity sector remains steady but cautious. Now that the economy appears to have turned, charities are looking to the future, which means they are focused on financial planning. They are also preparing for the implementation of the new Charities Statement of Recommended Practice, which becomes effective for accounting periods commencing on or after 1st January 2015. Most charities are not huge organisations so they often look for finance managers who are strong all-rounders with business planning and leadership skills. When hiring, they like to think through their requirements carefully so they often use interims to fill the gap when a position becomes vacant. They also use contractors to provide specialist technical expertise on a temporary basis.

Common trends
In general, the public sector is making greater use of interim and temporary personnel since this is a flexible way to address resource issues without committing to the expense of permanent staff. The sector is also creating more part-time roles since these can be a cost-effective way of filling a gap. Unfortunately there is a noticeable shortage of finance professionals who want part-time jobs since they prefer to work for a full-time salary. Payroll professionals continue to be in demand throughout the public sector due to the PAYE Real Time Information initiative and pension auto enrolment.
Often finance professionals in the public sector are required to juggle a number of different responsibilities including finance, IT and facilities. This means they need broad skill-sets and commercial nous. They also need to be resilient so that they can cope with a rapid pace of change. Finance professionals with strong stakeholder engagement skills are highly sought after.
The public sector can be slow about recruitment so it must speed up its processes if it is to attract the best finance professionals, especially in an improving economic climate. It also needs to be more self-aware so that it can promote the benefits of the sector to candidates who may be thinking of moving over from commerce and industry.
Salaries in the public sector have remained steady over the past year, with finance professionals often seeking new challenges rather than pay rises. Candidates who do move roles typically get a pay rise of around 5%.

Overall, the outlook for recruitment in the public sector looks promising for 2014 and into 2015. At Hays, we expect to see more movement at all levels as new opportunities arise and confidence builds.

To find out more about opportunities in the public sector, visit our website or contact Jan McQuaker on 020 7259 8745