The public vs. private sector debate is a long-standing one that has seen a lot of discourse over the years, each side seeing their fair share of both disparaging and uplifting stances.

It would be difficult to boil it all down into one digestible chunk, but the basic idea of their differences is that private sector careers are often higher-paying, with fewer benefits and moral scrutiny, while public sector jobs pay less but offer better benefits and a more rewarding opportunity to serve their communities and make them a better place.

First off let’s define the difference between the two.

The public sector consists of all government and government-funded agencies, including most nonprofits.

The private sector is basically any for-profit company not owned or operated by the government, along with a small number of nonprofits that receive their financial support from only a few (or sometimes just one) dedicated donor, and they don’t solicit funding from the public or the government.

Understanding these definitions will help make light of the differences between the two, especially when it comes to employment in each. Any agency or entity within the public sector is accountable to the government, as well as the public, for all of their actions and all of their spending.

The expectations of agencies in the public sector often remain more steady throughout long periods of time. In the private sector, companies are mostly accountable to their owners, or whoever provides most of their funding.

Some businesses are owned and funded by one or maybe just a few, while others have private investors. Others still might issue an IPO and become a publicly-traded company, which switches a lot of its accountability over to its majority shareholders. Either way, all of these companies, whether publicly traded or not, are still a part of the private sector.

One of the apparent upsides of seeking a job in the private sector is that it might be easier to find an employer whose company culture and ethical stances align closely with yours.

However, there are two common pitfalls that go along with this. First, private companies often change their values rapidly to meet their customer’s needs as well as their profit margins, and second, a lot of them exaggerate their values to attract talent only to fall flat in actually offering what was promised once someone is hired.

In the public sector, values and expectations change slowly and after much debate and discourse on the matter, meaning that the job you hired into will likely still align with your personality and goals twenty, thirty, or even forty years down the road. It’s not accurate to say that government programs aren’t at risk of being shut down with a mere vote or budget cut, because they are.

However, they are not at risk of tanking because of faulty leadership or even illegal financial management, which is more common, and often much more abrupt, than the shutdown of a government agency. In the public sector, you also have a high chance of being moved to another public service job if yours happens to disappear. In the private sector, there is little, and often no, place for employees to be moved to when an agency shuts down.

When it comes to pay, there is some truth to the fact that you might get paid less for doing the same job as someone else in the private sector, but this is mostly true for those with advanced degrees that have put in years of schooling, which often comes with the possibility of making a disproportionately higher amount of money than their peers in top private sector firms, which are much rarer than their average counterparts, though enough to skew the median wages.

For instance, individuals with an MPA (Master’s of Public Administration) degree earn a median salary of approximately $52,000 a year in public service careers, while those in the private sector make an average of $75,000 yearly.

However, when it comes to more entry level positions, or those that require only an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, start off with very competitive salaries, and often see much higher rates of job security and income growth potential. It has been reported that those employed by the federal government earned anywhere from 18% to 37% more than their private sector counterparts, and those numbers are only growing.

Starting off with an entry level position in the public sector may mean lower initial pay than someone with a degree, but it’s well known that government employees who work hard and prove themselves earn better lifetime salaries.

If you’re not the kind of person who wants to start from the bottom and work their way up, there are plenty of public service careers with high starting wages that you can obtain with just an associate’s degree or a certificate training program.

When it comes to earning potential, benefits and retirement plans should definitely be taken into account. A 2015 survey found that the public sector was much more satisfied with their job perks than those in the private sector, with retirement programs topping the list. If having the ability to comfortably retire is important to you, the public sector is most definitely where you want to spend the majority of your working life.

While each sector has its advantages and disadvantages, I think a career in public service is definitely worth consideration for anyone seeking a new job. I hope this article has given you some great things to consider!

Written By
AJ Earley is a small business owner, chef, and freelance writer from Idaho. She has shifted careers several times in her life and enjoys helping others navigate the world of career change. She also loves traveling, especially when she can bring along her cat Buddha.

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