How to Move from a Public to a Private Sector Security Job

Advice on moving from the public sector to a position in private industry.

If you work for a government agency, or perhaps in the military, you may have watched with some envy as friends have left over the years and taken jobs in the private sector that pay, according to "the word on the street," double what they were previously making.

For starters, this is not reality. Raising total compensation by 15 percent is more the norm. More critically, because of the perceived similarities, often those leaving the military, law enforcement or intelligence communities will gravitate to a career in corporate security, believing that it will be an easy, comfortable transition. Nothing is further from the truth. Here are a few tips that can help you ease the anxiety and make a successful move.

First, plan ahead. You should start researching your next career stage two to three years before you plan to make the switch. This will give you time to learn about the type of position, industry and geographic location you'd like. Corporate security positions run a wide spectrum of responsibilities depending on a variety of factors, which leads to a second tip: As you are doing your research, keep in mind that titles do not always capture the scope of a position. The head of global security for a major oil company may be called "manager of security" with a $250K-plus compensation package, while the leader at another company is "VP of corporate security" but is making $85K. Network with former colleagues and become active in programs and organizations that will put you in contact with industry professionals. Don't rule out positioning yourself for an assignment within your current organization that will afford you private-sector exposure.

When it comes to your résumé, don't regurgitate your government position description. Give specific accomplishments. An e-mail contact is important, and if you don't want to use your work address, set up one with Google, Hotmail or the like—but don't use another family member's account and don't make up cute or hobby-oriented user names. (We have seen addresses like "crabsnbeer4me," "Mike007," "brewmeister" and "special-agent2.") Limit your education section to your college degrees, language skills and relevant professional certifications. Training courses should be listed only if they are specific to a position you are applying for. Include any government clearances that you hold, but please do not list all of your weapons qualifications unless you are applying for a job in a war zone. Lastly, stay away from using government jargon and acronyms that the general public will not recognize. Your local bookstore has a number of books that offer good examples of formats and listings of keywords most commonly used in résumés.

Perseverance is key to a successful job search, which can be a time-consuming and ego-deflating part of your transition process. Unfortunately many corporations are not staffed to respond to all résumés submitted. Don't take this personally.

The culture change from public to private sector is very real. In government positions, the rules are relatively clear and the job well-defined (in fact, government job descriptions go on ad nauseam). The corporate world offers many more shades of gray. You are going to be given a general direction and asked to gather information and evaluate it; then, working within the organizational structure, you're often going to have to implement your ideas by influencing the line-of-business leaders. You will have to get that buy-in for your ideas before you ever write a policy. You'll also have to make decisions that affect the security of the organization based on your evaluations of risk, but you won't have unlimited funds, staff or resources. In some cases you will have to learn to let things go. If you have only three people on your staff and somebody calls to say that the local cleaning crew is stealing change, you aren't getting on a plane. You will have to look for patterns and determine which proactive and preventative programs will have the greatest impact. On the positive side, you may find benefits in this flexibility. With the government's rigid budget approval process, if you approach your boss halfway through the year and say, "I have a great idea, and I need $50,000 to implement it," he will look at you like you are nuts. In the corporate world, if you can make a business case for the idea, you can generally find the funds to get it done.

This less-defined manner of operation does require people who are coming out of a very structured environment to adjust. Many have, and when all is said and done, the rewards can be well worth the effort.

Jerry Brennan's background includes military, law enforcement and corporate security experience. He is managing director of executive placement firm Security Management Resources and coauthor of an upcoming book on security careers published by the CSO Executive Council, which is affiliated with CSO magazine.

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