Recruiting top finance talent in the public sector

Prospective employees often seek more than just a hefty starting salary. Here’s how to attract and hire outstanding talent in government.
By Lou Carlozo

Carrie Kruse, CPA, CGMA, economic development coordinator for the city of Des Moines, Iowa, says the career development benefits of public-sector employment can be a big boost to recruiting.
Carrie Kruse, CPA, CGMA, economic development coordinator for the city of Des Moines, Iowa, says the career development benefits of public-sector employment can be a big boost to recruiting. (Photo by Conrad Schmidt/AP Images)

Reputation goes a long way when it comes to recruiting top finance talent. So it has been for the public sector, which has long labored under a host of false stereotypes that make it tough to attract and retain talent. Like: Government work in finance is dull. Thankless. Inefficient.

The truth is that those mischaracterizations bear zero resemblance to the 21st century reality. Those with firsthand experience can attest to the advantages of public-sector employment, from superior work/life balance to the strong sense of mission many public-sector positions prize. But even if less relevant than in generations past, the tired clichés haven't vanished for good.

TWIN BARRIERS: PAY AND DELAY

The public sector's reputation in the popular imagination is not the only recruiting roadblock. The baseline mechanics of how governments recruit and interview can also put them at a disadvantage. Unlike private-sector companies that can move with relative speed and ease, public-sector entities follow a process dictated by formidable legal requirements.

"Civil service laws are often a barrier to acquiring top talent, as the hiring process for positions subject to those rules can take up four or five months from advertising to hiring," said Carrie Kruse, CPA, CGMA, economic development coordinator for the city of Des Moines, Iowa.

She added that many colleges and universities don't offer classes in governmental finance or accounting, which can result in some puzzled looks when students encounter public-sector employers at job fairs. "The pool of potential finance and accounting graduates with strong interests in government starts off even smaller partially because of this," she said.

"Public accounting firms and other private-sector entities often conduct on-site interviews, and perhaps even offer jobs, during those events," said John Kaschak, CPA, CGMA, executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. "In the government sector, we require accounting and auditing candidates to register through the civil service commission, get on a listing of approved candidates, and then be reachable on that listing before we can ask them to formally interview."

Then there is that matter of numbers you need not be a finance professional to understand: income.

"We often end up offering starting salaries that are significantly less than those in the private sector," Kaschak said. "While the public sector can offer perks like better work/life balance, they often don't initially mean as much as salary."

The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may create budgetary pressures for many government employers — constraints also being felt in many areas of the private sector — that could further complicate the hiring picture for a period of time.

MAKING THE CASE

Before the hiring drive starts, telling and selling the true story of public-sector finance work must become, if you will, job one, according to public-sector veterans.

"Local and state governments still incorrectly have a reputation as a less than cutting-edge business environment — and nothing could be further from the truth," said Maryland-based Jack Reagan, CPA, partner, UHY LLP.

Reagan's public-sector clients have included the District of Columbia; New York City; Nashville, Tenn.; and Fairfax County, Va. Based on his experience, he's convinced that any finance job seeker who relishes a chance to grow will find opportunities in modern government.

"If our governments can better tell their stories about the tremendous business challenges they face and how they're harnessing cutting-edge practices to overcome those challenges, it will make it much easier to recruit and retain top financial and accounting professionals," Reagan said.

Kaschak agrees. He has enjoyed many such challenge scenarios in his more than 17 years with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He oversees the processing of 10 million tax returns, which translates to the collection and accounting of more than $33 billion in annual revenues. That amount exceeds the GDP of many small nations, including Iceland, Yemen, and Latvia.

As if his responsibilities weren't enough, Kaschak is also an architect of the department's transformation plan, which covers modernization, reorganization, and employee empowerment.

"I've been able to reinvent myself and my career on three separate occasions while working for the same employer under the same pension system," Kaschak said. "One of the best things about working in government is the breadth of opportunities that are available to you."

And for those who relish the prospect of making a difference, public-sector finance has a direct link to the life and well-being of communities, Kruse said.

"Playing a role in helping to identify community priorities and working to help bring those visions to life is so rewarding," said Kruse, a 10-year veteran of municipal government. "There is an extremely high level of job satisfaction that comes along with being able to make a difference in your community versus your job being purely profit-driven."

Well-being also comes into play for the workers themselves. Many government entities offer outstanding medical benefits and the work/life balance many private companies strive for but don't always deliver.

"Work/life balance is the primary reason I left public accounting" after four years, Kaschak said. "I was traveling 80% of the time, and 60% of that was out of state. It was not unusual for me to put in a 60- or 70-hour workweek."

While he still works long hours, "I'm able to be more flexible as to when I work. I'm home every night for dinner with my wife and daughters. I'm able to take my girls to their practices and watch their recitals."

WAYS TO RECRUIT TERRIFIC TALENT

So how can those in public-sector finance convince a prospect that the job is worth the wait, especially if it doesn't pay as much? Consider these five steps.

Stress the training and development perks

As Kruse pointed out, "My local government employers have supported the costs incurred for taking the CPA Exam — and the city of Des Moines continues to support my ongoing educational requirements to maintain my license as a CPA and my designation as a CGMA."

Show flexibility

"One of the biggest things that we offer in state government is flexibility, both in terms of schedule and career path," Kaschak said. "We now offer flexible scheduling, alternative work schedules, and teleworking as options to our staff." You'll want to add that such advantages won't go away once the COVID-19 pandemic calms down and people return to their offices.

Sell the benefits

It's hard to believe most young job seekers don't know what a pension is — and yes, fiscal austerity has eaten into some pension plans. But if your government job offers one, explain what it is and how it differs from a 401(k), 403(b), or IRA. Government medical benefits are commonly a cut above as well, which will be a big plus for many.

Step in to educate

It's easy to assume college-educated finance hopefuls will know more about government work than they actually do. Build relationships that will allow you to get into classrooms or meet student groups to tell them what your work is all about — and not about. "Unfortunately, many negative stereotypes paint government employees as being lazy, unmotivated, or uncaring," Kaschak said. "My experience has been the complete opposite."

Show the camaraderie

The through line in all government work is the presence of people who leave, or leave behind, higher-paying jobs to serve the community. That in large part infuses government finance with a workplace camaraderie unlike any you'll find elsewhere.

"When any of our departments struggle with a challenge, we all rally around those issues or challenges and work together to develop solutions," Kruse said. "You get to meet some of the most incredible people working in the government sector, people who strive to leave their communities far better than how they found them."


About the author

Lou Carlozo is a freelance writer based in Illinois.

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, a JofA senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.


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