From fed to private sector: How to make the move

When looking for a new professional challenge, federal IT employees often set their sights on an industry job. But how can they ensure that their shift from public- to private-sector employment goes smoothly?

To answer that question, I asked former senior-level federal officials who have successfully made the transition to share their experiences and offer practical advice on finding a job that fits.

The officials — each with more than 30 years of experience — agreed that job seekers should reflect on what kind of work they want to do, research companies of interest and use their network of contacts to find the right kinds of opportunities.

They also said a common pitfall that causes federal employees to bounce from one industry job to the next is a lack of preparation.

“The biggest single factor of those who didn’t have a good transition is they didn’t have a clear idea of what they were walking into,” said Pat Schambach, former CIO at the Transportation Security Administration and now vice president and general manager of homeland security business at Computer Sciences Corp.

Before moving to the private sector, employees should consider how industry differs from the federal government in terms of budgets and financing, said Renny DiPentima, former deputy commissioner of systems at the Social Security Administration. He retired as president and CEO of SRA International in 2007.

DiPentima said federal employees should think about and specify during interviews what kind of value they will add to a company with their existing skill set.

Former government employees are often targeted for work in two areas: business development, such as sales and marketing, and program management. It’s up to the employee to decide the area in which he or she will be able to contribute the most, DiPentima said.

When Schambach began thinking about joining the private-sector workforce, he talked to others who had already made the switch. He particularly sought out people who did not have a successful transition.

“Start early, and start by interviewing people who have gone through it, and learn from their experiences,” Schambach advised.

He said federal employees should weigh whether they want to work for a large or small company and consider whether they would prefer a company that provides products or services. And they should decide what role they’d like to fill at a company.

“Part of my goal in talking to people was to help me understand these roles and how they are different from each other,” Schambach said.

He also used those conversations to understand complex private-sector compensation models so he knew what to ask for and how to negotiate.

Do your homework

Woody Hall, former assistant commissioner and CIO at the Customs and Border Protection agency, agreed that talking with others who have made the change to the private sector is essential.

The more you talk with former feds who are now in the private sector, “the better you’re going to be able to negotiate a [benefits] package that makes sense to you and your employer,” said Hall, who is now vice president of IT strategy and CIO at General Dynamics IT.

Hall said federal employees should be upfront with companies about what they’re looking for in a position. “Private-sector companies are able to structure and restructure positions much more easily” than the government, he added.

Hall also said employees should do their homework on the companies they’re interested in by researching them on the Internet or contacting colleagues who might be familiar with the companies’ inner workings.

Jim Williams, former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service, also emphasized the importance of staying connected with friends and former colleagues as one searches for a new job.

“You’re probably going to find a job through someone you know,” he said. “You should make sure people know how to get hold of you.”

Williams, who is senior vice president of global professional services at Daon, added that he took five months off between jobs to recharge and figure out what he wanted to do next — a recommendation that was popular among the other former officials.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jan 27, 2011 Alan

The Feds was the place to be when I got out of school. Good hours, great bennies, not the most money, but plenty, and a great retirement system. Problem was that there were a lot of mediocrity, going up to the high levels, as the real go getters would not be in government service, and those at the very top were appointees who knew someone important, and they were really useless, as they were only there for 2-3 years anyway. So guys like me went there for a couple of years, then left. Now, the private sector is stinko, with none or lousy 401k bennies, health benefits that stink, and the money is really not good. Given the choice, I should have stayed with the feds, and all of the issues they had. It seems that no place is as good as it was 25 years ago. Not sure why, but I think it is because the US is not as competitive as it was back then.

Wed, Jan 26, 2011

A year in the private sector at their same agency and then back to federal service. Just another revolving door.

Wed, Jan 26, 2011

It always astounds me how private sector people are so quick to put down government (not military) workers. But then the first thing private contract workers do when they do work for the government is try to get hired as a permanent government worker. I went from private to government employment and found no difference in the professionalism and skill level of the work force. The real difference between the private and government sector is the management not the rank and file workers.

Wed, Jan 26, 2011 RayW

This article appears mostly useless for most folks since it looks like it is aimed at the upper levels of GS and the SES and up folks that go into vice president and other high level positions. It does point out at the end that you have to plan what you want and that networking and friends are important, that is true for all job seekers.

For the rank and file folks, most Real Life companies (in my experience with three companies and about another 12 interviews over 18 years), your benefits and pay are fairly fixed. You can negotiate on the pay if you are 'hot', but mostly you get what is offered as far as benefits outside of pay. Now you get into senior management where the networking/friendship with other decision makers still working for the Gov can mean the difference between getting a contract and having someone else get the contract, then those folks have an entirely different way of arranging compensation.

Now if this article was rewritten to give advice to the GS 5-13 working class (I left out WG since in many states that is union and other than being shafted by the union, I know very little of that side) on how to overcome the prejudice against hiring 'lazy' Gov workers, then it might be useful for the majority of the folks who need to think about moving up in the economic world by getting a Real Life job.

I do know that when we hired folks in my peer range of GS 7-12 equivalent (when I worked for Real Life companies), that we would give precedence to military (all else being about equal), but for the civilian Gov workers, they went down on the list unless they were really outstanding since they had a 'taint'.

Wed, Jan 26, 2011

Federal employees should also research the expectations of employees in the private sector,as well as the security of their prospective job at the company. Most states allow private industry to fire-at-will, with no guaranteed severance package/lay-off benefits. In addition, please do not expect to work 40 hours per week; frankly you will be in a minority if you work less than 50 hours per week for "40 hours" pay. If you hire on with a defense consulting firm, even if you are a SME/"have a regular job", you will be expected to be looking for marketing opportunities at all times. And then you will be expected to donate your free time in order to pursue those opportunitities.

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