Employment: The sector swappers

Sociologist Martin Albrow on research that confirms some beliefs about the sector - and challenges others.

The transfer of employees between the private, public and voluntary sectors is a bigger deal than some might think, according to the results of a recent survey of executives who have switched from business to charities.

The research by PrimeTimers, a non-profit body that helps people with career transition, found that these sector-swappers are people who believe, in the words of one respondent, "that skills and experience gained in the private sector could and should make a contribution to society". They expect to add value, but also to share values - 94 per cent switched sectors because they wanted to "make a difference". This is where surprises are in store.

Could it be that they are more highly motivated than the old hands?

Those surveyed this summer were 55 executives who had crossed to the third sector. They had serious business backgrounds, with only 4 per cent saying they switched because they were unable to find work in the private sector. The survey compared experience of the sector with initial expectations. The respondents' initial view that the sector needed business practices was strengthened after joining charities. Seventy-five per cent started out believing this; this figure rose to 87 per cent for those with some experience working in the sector.

Meanwhile, 75 per cent of new recruits found the voluntary sector well behind business in terms of systems, processes and procedures, and 65 per cent thought it lagged far behind in terms of ICT. These were views that the respondents claimed long-term workers shared, in the main.

However, they felt that third sector workers were not so aware of deficiencies in decision-making. On this subject, 84 per cent of the former executives were convinced business could add value, but reported that only 63 per cent of the established workers shared this view. Expectations of the sector divide and its deficit in business practices appeared to meet the reality test.

A sector of idealists?

It was when it came to ideals that our business executives suffered an unsettling surprise. These 'trans-sectorites' tend to be idealists, expecting their new colleagues to be more committed to their work than co-workers in business. Although 62 per cent expected the sector to be full of idealists, only 50 per cent came out feeling that this was true; whereas 89 per cent expected committed and passionate employees, only 71 per cent found them.

Furthermore, 71 per cent reported that third-sector workers thought they were more committed than business people - but only 32 per cent found their own experiences could support this belief.

Does this amount to disillusion? Probably not - it's more a recognition that the third sector also has to deal with sobering realities.

Although these former executives remain convinced that business practices have much to offer, they found third-sector workers to be surprisingly pragmatic. At 48 per cent, almost half found the third sector to be more ready for new ideas than they had expected. A further 45 per cent believed in the possibility of reverse learning - considering that business could learn from the third sector's understanding of society.

More crossing over

In general, the divide is real for our cross-sector people; experience backs the stereotype. But can we expect more to follow their example?

There are good grounds for thinking this will be the case. Demographics and company policies tend to push mid-career executives in the direction of the third sector. The divide between the sectors is more about structures than it is about the capacities they need - or, indeed, their values.

The third sector does not just deal with the leftovers after the private and public beasts have had their fill - it is, in effect, society. Anxious to show that this thing is real, New Labour promoted volunteering as a good solid plank for mobilising the sector from the very beginning. Communities minister David Miliband's call earlier this month for local authorities to release land to community groups was only the latest in a series of initiatives that began with the Compact in 1998.

If society is about volunteering and government wants services delivered through it, that only reinforces the view that the third sector sorely needs business skills. Social enterprises and community interest companies follow in this train of development.

PrimeTimers' business executives are working with the grain of public policy and satisfying their own values at the same time. The divides are real and the ability to cross them ever more important. But ideals matter even more.

Shared experience

The development of public policy suggests an even greater likelihood of cross-sector movement in the future. The need for professional skills in the public sector is a priority for government, and cross-over is becoming a public policy good.

The new cabinet secretary, Gus O'Donnell, tells his senior officials that if they want to go up they must get out - not permanently, but to get experience of other sectors.

Business, government and the third sector are competing for the same people, and increasingly require similar skill sets. But workers across the sectors are also aware that they are involved in a complex but positive form of engagement for the good of society.

It is not just that cross-over increases the capacity of the other sectors; there is also an increase in empathy and an awareness of the greater good.

What we now need is to reinforce the structures that carry the flows.

- Martin Albrow, a sociologist and adviser to PrimeTimers, is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics.

Further details on the research can be obtained from info@primetimers.org.uk.


- 94 per cent of respondents who switched to the voluntary sector did so because they wanted "to make a difference"

- 75 per cent of new recruits to the third sector found it well behind business in systems and procedures

- 65 per cent thought it lagged far behind in ICT

- 89 per cent expected charity staff to be committed and passionate, but only 71 per cent found them to be so

- 71 per cent reported that third sector people think they are more committed than business people, but only 32 per cent of new recruits thought it was true.

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