One of the shining lights of local government has left the building. But is changing sectors difficult? After all isn't comms comms?
by Julie Waddicor
I’ve worked in local government for 18 years, which is virtually my entire working life. Wow. That is terrifying, both because of how old it makes me and also because I am about to go and work in a new industry.
The time is right for me to go and do something new, and I thought my experience of moving into a different sector might be helpful to others. Lots of people working in local authorities will need to change career in the future, through choice or circumstance, and some of the below (while none of it is rocket science) might assist.
1. Local government experience isn’t necessarily a help or a hindrance when looking for a new career.
Councils are one of the few workplaces that often don’t value sector experience. That, combined with current finances resulting in a lot of councils not hiring and a desire for fresh thinking, means that getting another local government job might not be that easy. Other companies – private, public and third sector – will value your skill set, and actually don’t generally hold the view that council workers are dinosaurs. Don’t be afraid to apply to places that you think wouldn’t want you – you could be surprised.
2. Cast your net wide.
In reality, you don’t know what a particular employer is looking for, and if you get to interview stage it’ll come down to your cultural fit with the organisation, and how well you match their values. I applied for lots of jobs, and got to interview for some, that on paper I should have absolutely nailed. I didn’t. Likewise, the job I have secured, and a private sector one I was offered an interview for at the same time, were a bit of a punt to my mind. You need to put the hours in, search websites, submit speculative CVs, use your networks and sign up for email alerts. Spend a day identifying and signing up online (for alerts and to companies you are interested in, many of whom will email you with suitable opportunities), and then a few of hours every week doing applications. You reap what you sow.
3. Get a useful job title now.
Your current job title shouldn’t matter but it does. The reality is that companies want people with experience that will be of value to them. Communicating with stakeholders isn’t really enough – they want you to be experienced with their stakeholders. This applies in the private sector too. I have friends who work in private sector marketing and they get headhunted by people in the same industry, not other ones. So a title like ‘Voluntary Sector Partnership Manager’ is more useful than ‘Partnership Manager’. ‘Online Content Officer’ is more useful than ‘Communications Officer’. Having ‘Internal Communications’ somewhere in your job title is a godsend, as this is seen as a transferable skill applicable to any organisation, and is obviously really useful if you are applying for internal comms jobs or those with an element of internal comms (which many have, including my new job which according to the title is very externally focused). Think hard about what kind of job you want, where you want to focus in the future, and negotiate with your boss to get that in to your job title now.
4. Remember you are interviewing them too.
As someone who works in local government comms, you will have been through the mill at least once and you have skills and resilience that would be useful to any company. Don’t jump from the frying pan in to the fire if you can avoid it. Value yourself and make sure you take a job that feels right: go with your gut. Obviously this is a bit less relevant if you’ve been made redundant and need work fast. In that case, take the job offered but keep looking for something that is right.
5. Be prepared to travel. Realistically, you’ll probably have to travel a bit to get the right job on the right money. As part of your day of preparation, set a travel time that is the maximum you can do, and then identify companies within it.
6. Work out the lowest amount you can afford to earn.
Sometimes, particularly if you need to move quickly, you’ll need to accept that moving sector might mean a pay cut, or not gaining anything financially from moving. Due to increased travel costs, I actually take home slightly less in my new job than I did before. I can manage that for a bit until the pay rises kick in. Be realistic on this one: sometimes short term pain is long term gain.
7. Target your applications.
This is obvious – we all do targeted comms right? – but when you are sending off five forms in a week it becomes tedious and the temptation is to send off the same form. Realistically, you have to target your application form or CV to the specific job you are applying for. If you don’t, you might as well not bother. But you can use a lot of the same base information, and realistically you’ll probably be applying for similar jobs in different companies, so after a while you can do a lot of cutting and pasting.
8. Understand it’s a bit of a lottery, and be kind to yourself.
Realistically, you need to do a good application to get to interview stage. After that, it comes down to how well you fit with the organisation’s values, how it goes on the day and whether you both get a good vibe. If you don’t get offered the job, it’s because it wasn’t right for you and you wouldn’t have been happy. Accept it and move on. It’s no reflection of your ability, or your future chances of moving to a different sector. Taking this attitude isn’t always easy, particularly after months of effort, but you will get there. Keep going.
I’ve learnt a lot from my time in local government, and have worked with some truly extraordinary people. I genuinely believe there is no harder place to do comms, and that gives us skills and resilience that are hugely valuable. Be confident, and be bold. If you want to move, or have to, you can. Dig in, be confident, and be prepared to keep trying.
Julie Waddicor was Campaigns and Internal Communications Manager at Staffordshire County Council, and is now Head of Student Experience and Engagement at The University of Salford.