Now that it is clear that job losses in the public sector over the next 4 – 5 years will be measured in the hundreds of thousands, the economic gamble is – as many have commented – that the private sector can provide the new job opportunities to make up the difference. Its ability to grow at that rate given the circumstances shouldn’t be the only concern, although it is a perfectly valid one. And neither should we overlook the need to not just ‘take up the slack’ but to grow beyond that to accommodate those who will enter the job market for the first time and who will find few openings in publicly-funded arenas. The rise in state retirement age may also have an impact, as the queue for “dead people’s shoes” consequently grows a little longer.

The private sector will, sensibly, recruit those it deems most suitable to the opportunities it seeks to fill. The Equality Bill may, like the CSR, be upon us, but to expect companies to prefer (say) 50 year old former Council employees over (say) 23 year old MBA graduates is to expect law to have greater impact on preconceptions and behaviours than may turn out to be the case. But the impact of the private sector’s perceptions of the public sector is likely to prove more important in determining the latter’s former employees’ chances.

It shouldn’t need saying – but too often does – that there are countless highly-skilled, effective, efficient people working arduously (and effectively in a business sense too) in the public sector, a fair few of whom may find that they will not be doing so much longer. Although many glasshouse dwellers will hurl many stones in months to come, there are some hopeless cases and deadwood in the private sector too. In reality, neither side has a monopoly on either virtues or vices.

Earlier this week, Mark Staniland of Hays generated press coverage (link to one example) after a survey that contained some arresting figures: while 22% of public-sector employees fear their background will put them “at a distinct disadvantage”, 46% of private-sector employers claim previous private-sector experience is “very important” and say of candidates that they “lack sufficient market insight and are unrealistic about the differences between the two sectors”.

There are fundamental cultural and philosophical differences between the two sectors: although it exists because its existing market has been identified, the public sector is, by definition, not in the business of creating or seeking new ones. Though both exist to meet needs they perceive, one seeks to maximize profit through addressing needs while the other seeks to address needs as far as possible within available budgets. As Staniland commented:

There is a lot of stereotyping about working life in both sectors, which both sides will have to overcome.”

Given the economy’s dependence over the next few years (and longer) on the growth of the private sector, its recently demonstrated flexibility in addressing the downturn – such as using shorter hours or pay reductions to avoid job losses – will need to be further called on. There is no legitimate imperative for it to employ those who will find themselves jobless, but its comparative flexibility in deployment (for example, matching skills and people to roles and opportunities) could yield dividends for the economy as well as for individual companies.

One of the welcome, if intriguing but vague, lines in the official Spending Review 2010 document came with reference to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, where the Chancellor announced:

The Government will also improve the quality of information and advice for students, including through the development of an all-age careers service.”

Money clearly isn’t too tight to mention – we’ve collectively discussed little else for months – and it would be encouraging to think that investment in an all-age careers service that supports both sectors in dealing with changes in workplace culture might be possible, particularly if the alternative scenario paints a picture where the skills of those whose jobs are to be sacrificed will be lost to the economy.

Engagement and motivation includes an element of encouragement and acknowledgement of existing positives; a government that ‘rewards’ public-sector employees by leaving them to face misguided perceptions of their abilities from a private sector that could (given its championing of change and of possibilities) deploy and extend their abilities does everyone – and everyone’s economy – a disservice.