Public Sector Generation Next: Clear Career Paths Are Key

Alex Metcalfe | July 16, 2018 |

Generation Next public sector workers are a dynamic group. They are the most optimistic about technological change and have significant entrepreneurial drive. They also believe that their finance background provides an excellent foundation for their future careers.

The ACCA’s most recent sector-specific Generation Next report, Generation Next: Managing Talent in the Public Sector, focuses on more than 1,400 young public sector accountants and outlines many conclusions that are crucial for public sector professional accountants, and others looking to recruit public sector talent.

  • “Clear career paths” and “experience at work” are essential for attracting and retaining talent. The survey showed that for younger professional accountants in the public sector, two clusters of factors are most important for both attraction and retention. Most importantly, Generation Next public sector professionals are looking for clear career paths, which includes opportunities for learning and developing skills. A second cluster of factors center on an employee’s experience at work, including the preference for interesting work and a good work-life balance.
  • Younger public sector accountants are planning diverse careers. For their next move, most Generation Next public sector respondents want to take on a more senior positions in the same area. In the longer term, more than three-quarters of younger public sector accountants want to pursue a role in a different country or region. Interestingly, public sector professional accountants are the most entrepreneurial as they are the most likely among all their peers to want to start their own business at some point in their career.
  • Job satisfaction lower than peers. Public sector professional accountants have lower job satisfaction than the global average, which may be attributable to a lack of transparent career paths. Equally, many cited cultural challenges as effecting career progression.
  • Experiential learning underused. External seminars and on-the-job learning are considered the most used learning activities in the sector, though lower than the global average with nearly half of all public sector respondents believing that on-the-job learning was also effective.
  • Both realistic and optimistic about technological change. Three-fifths (60%) of Generation Next public sector respondents acknowledge that technology will replace many of the jobs typically completed by accountants in entry-level finance and accountancy roles. Most Generation Next public sector respondents (87%) said that technology will enable finance professionals to focus on activities with much higher added value in the future.

The report argues that employers in the public sector must focus on attraction, development, and retention in framing any wider changes in their approach to talent management. The survey, along with a series of global roundtables conducted in 2018 with public sector employers, produced a number of recommendations. To attract talent, employers should:

  • create clear mid-career routes into the public sector;
  • advertise the opportunities for learning; and
  • develop the brand of your function or team.

To develop talent, employers should:

  • support cross-functional employment opportunities to allow employees to develop new skills;
  • offer new forms of experiential learning as mentoring, job rotation, and coaching are underused by their employers; and
  • encourage secondments, particularly to the corporate sector.

To retain talent, employers should:

  • stress the excellent work environment offered by the public sector;
  • create opportunities for new challenges in the same role; and
  • make clear career paths within the organization.

One of the biggest concerns is that the lack of a transparent career path could be contributing to public sector job dissatisfaction: only 26% believe clear paths exist in their organization. Alex Metcalfe, ACCA Head of Public Sector Policy, and the report author, points out that squeezed public sector budgets could be putting retention of talented staff at risk. “Across the sector, developing talent has been a challenge given austerity and the tightening of government budgets, which often hit learning and development budgets,” he said. “The survey showed that 92% of respondents were attracted to public sector employers that would provide the opportunity for them to learn and develop skills. It is essential that public organizations meet this challenge.”

In addition to these challenges, public sector organizations are typically unable to compete on remuneration for top talent. They must instead communicate a holistic offering to their candidates that includes clear career paths and a positive work environment. Whatever strategies they decide to adopt, it is essential that public sector employers recognize the importance of talent management as a key component of their future strategies.


ACCA’s Generation Next study is one of the largest ever international surveys carried out on the work preferences and aspirations of young professional accountants. Some 19,000 ACCA members under the age of 36 in 150 countries took part, and the full results were published in a 2016 report followed by four sector-specific reports.

Alex Metcalfe

Head of Public Sector Policy, ACCA

Alex Metcalfe is the head of public sector policy in the Professional Insights team at ACCA. He leads on developing thought leadership for the public sector and represents ACCA at senior global member forums. Alex has previous experience in the UK and Canadian Civil Service, including working as a Senior Economist – specialising in tax policy – at the Ontario Ministry of Finance in Canada. He has frequently given evidence to UK committees and ministerial roundtables, and was a member of the Home Office Employers' Representative Group on EU Exit. His published research includes work on the labour and skills needs of small firms after Brexit, as well as economic analysis on the cumulative cost of government policy on small firms. He studied at Oxford, Cambridge and Queen's universities.

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