My skills and my value in the private sector
Transitioning to private sector employment seems daunting but it doesn’t have to be...
1 Sep 2021

My views onto the serene landscape of Lac Léman and the terraced vineyards of the Swiss Romande, were slowly replaced by the functional office buildings and warehouses of Swiss German. I was being driven to Zug for a job interview at Marc Rich + Co. by a headhunter who had placed several IT consultants with Rich and was now proposing me to fill a key IT role. It was 1988, a bit more than three years since I had joined the ILO after having worked at several large multinationals including IBM and, most recently, Intel. As the scenery changed, I made a mental list of Rich’s possible questions and my hopefully competent replies – “hopefully” because I wondered if my stint at the ILO, steeped in bureaucracy and with its relatively weak technical and management environments, might negatively affect my value to private companies.

Many UN staff face such a reckoning at one point or another in their career. Your post is cut. Your boss is unbearable. You find yourself in a duty station or program that is unacceptable. Or you are drawn to the private sector by its merit-based advancement and potential rewards. Whatever the reason, it is good to understand the private sector’s preconceived notions of your professional worth today. To that end, I interviewed experts from Michael Page and Robert Half recruitment agencies to identify and weigh differences they discern between UN vs private candidates and the value assigned to UN staff by the recruiters’ private clients. This article will look at UN staff in terms of a) typical competencies and general marketability outside the UN, b) ways to mitigate some competency gaps and c) future trends.

Valuable outside the UN?

Common sense informs us that UN employees tend to have a jump on the competition in several areas: languages, cultural awareness and sensitivity, diplomacy, and international experience. However, what you may not have realized is that there are other arrows in your quiver. One is that relative to the private sector, the UN workers are considered to uphold higher ethical standards, and another is that UN workers are deemed as being socially open-minded.

Naturally, there is a downside too. As the experts underlined, spending a long stretch (no one quantified this) in the UN bureaucracy cocoon makes it much harder to adapt to the world of market orientation, product competition, return on investment, etc. Tied to this is the perception that UN staff workload is lighter than in private sector companies. Therefore, it is assumed that these employees would not be able to cope with the increased pressure. And finally, weighing against UN staff movement to the world of multinationals is that UN tax-free salary levels, education grants, rental subsidies, etc. are difficult for private companies to match.

Mitigation: Innovation

Aiming to hear a voice of experience, I quizzed a dear friend who has managed, in her 20-plus year career, to jump from private to the UN and then on to an international organization. We compared notes. While I turned down the Marc Rich + Co. offer (insufficient salary), she accepted the offer she received. She recommends developing a better personal interview story by doing “two things each year that make your team, department or organisation function better”. These innovations need not be earth-shaking but they will help demonstrate to perspective employers that you have the energy and skills to identify problems and propose/drive creative solutions.

What the future may hold…

The good news is that even though some private sector organizations refuse to consider UN staff as candidates, the consensus is that the wall between public and private sector is slowly crumbling. Why? One cause is generational.

Marine Moncozet, one of Michael Page’s Geneva Office Directors, observed that younger workers are shifting away from a traditional focus on KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and deliverables to a flatter, more collaborative structure. Workforces today are mainly composed (approximately 70%) of Generation X and Millennial workers. Millennial Careers: 2020 Vision by ManpowerGroup analyzed thousands of Millennial worker attitudes in 25 countries. A relevant and enlightening conclusion was that Millennials’ “top priorities when looking for a job are money (92%), security (87%), holidays/time off (86%), great people (80%), and flexible working (79%)”. Ms. Moncozet also noted an increase in the use of more modern productivity approaches within the UN. Assuming that these workplace value-shifts continue, it will arguably draw the two sectors closer together.

In a Nutshell As a result of the gradual convergence in values of the two workplace cultures, UN staffers may be less daunted by the thought of transitioning to the private sector. UN employees may enhance their attractiveness to the private marketplace by making continuous, sincere efforts to improve themselves (further education, challenging assignments) and by positively evolving their work environment.

* Michael O’Neil retired from the ILO in 2006 and is currently Adjunct Professor of HR Management at Webster University School of Business and Technology, Switzerland.
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