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Talent Demand In Global Public Sector Offers MBAs Careers With Social Impact

International development organizations are harnessing the power of the private sector. There is now a need for finance-savvy managers.

Sun Jan 25 2015

International development organizations face a revolution. The public sector is now a fast-changing sphere. Innovation has spread as the landscape has begun to shift.

Collaboration between multinationals, private foundations and public bodies has radically altered the nature of public sector careers. Public agencies’ global influence has diminished as private sector organizations have moved in. 

Stretched finances have focused attention on efficiency and impact. Development organizations are harnessing the power of the private sector and capital markets.

A new approach to recruitment has been developed. There is now a need for finance-savvy individuals and those with skills not traditionally focused on in the development world.

“Management skills are the top priority, even more than public policy expertise,” says Ian Macdonald, director of the public management specialization in the MBA program at Schulich School of Business in Canada.

Recruiters have diversified strategies and are hiring business executives. Development organizations are looking to business schools in the US and Europe for new sources of talent.

This extends beyond organizations like the World Bank, the United Nations and Oxfam to smaller groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Gavi Alliance.

“Many local public sector departments are hiring now,” says Henrik P Minassians, director of public sector partnerships at California State University – Northridge.

What is valued by these organizations today is knowing how to manage new environments with a different set of skills, he says. “MPA [Master of Public Administration] degrees are indeed becoming ever more important to public administrators since these new skills are more relevant.”

Today, a global focus is key. “For both students and employers, having a global perspective has become increasingly important,” says Peter O’Connor, dean for academic programs at ESSEC Business School in France.

At the same time, private sector managers are seeking meaning in their careers and want to work for companies that generate a positive social impact on societies.

According to a 2014 global survey of business executives, partly released this month by EY, the consultancy, and Saïd Business School, 87% of the executives believe companies perform better if their purpose goes beyond profit – including positively impacting society.

“Purpose and meaning have an important role as a strategic, transformational element in business today,” says Cheryl Grise, global advisory strategy leader at EY.

There has been an increase in the provision of MPA degrees, particularly in North America.

US master’s and undergraduate degrees in public administration have grown from 17,000 in 2010 to almost 21,000 in 2013, according to Kathy Gamboa, dean of operations for the College of Criminal Justice and Security at the University of Phoenix.

There are distinct differences between MPA and MBA programs, she says: “The MPA places emphasis on leadership in a public service organization, supporting public policy, leading government organizations, non-profits, and advocacy groups.”

This is in response to a flood of managers who are now entering MPA programs at business schools, and MBA programs that offer specializations in social impact.

ESSEC is one a growing number of business schools to offer a joint degree in management and public policy. Its GLIMPSE dual degree program is a partnership with leading Asian business schools.
“It is only by looking outside the box that we can understand the perspective of the other and thus challenge entrenched practices,” says Peter.

“More and more of our students are interested in the non-profit sector,” says Peter J Robertson, associate professor at USC’s Price School of Public Policy in California.

The number of international applications for USC’s MPA program has surged from 78 in 2009 to 340 in 2014, he says.

After graduating from the MPA at Warwick Business School, Louise Alice Thomas moved to the Department for International Development, a UK government department fighting global poverty.

She leads a team of 10 people who assist the department’s program and policy teams with financial and project management.

“I enjoy making the links between these different work areas,” says Louise, including helping her team make connections with finance, planning, risk and strategy departments.

The UK’s Department for International Development is one of a number of organizations utilizing new sources of finance. Last year it launched a development impact bond to raise investment funds for the prevention of sleeping sickness in Uganda.

Impact bonds are just one of a number of financing mechanisms that are being explored. With private capital, development organisations can do more good. This has generated a need for more experienced financial managers.

“Managers in the public and non-profit sectors have to take into account the broader array of interests reflected among the people and communities they are trying to serve,” says Peter at USC's Price School.

Like many other development organizations, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private sector arm, has been diversifying its recruitment.

Because the IFC’s focus is to provide capital for private sector projects in developing countries, it now tends to hire from business schools – known for finance and strategic expertise.

There is no shortage of talent to choose from. Postgraduate job applications to the IFC more than doubled to 2,600 last year, from 1,200 in 2013. MBA internship applications also increased, to 1,300 from 1,100 over the same period.

Accenture Development Partnerships, the international development wing of the management consultancy firm, has also started to use MBA internships. It expects to have tripled its total employee base from 1,000 in 2013 to about 3,000 by the end of 2015.

Government departments are another area of student interest. Local government administration roles and, increasingly, federal government jobs are popular at UNC-Chapel Hill’s MPA, according to Bill Rivenbark, director of the program.

Innovation in these organizations may also be attracting managers. Global development groups have been developing a focus on technology. “Using IT skills and services to link public organizations and what they do with those they serve has become a critical necessity,” says Henrik at California State.

The UN, for instance, ran an initiative called Global Pulse that used a network of innovation labs to explore how data can improve responses to humanitarian crises.

The African Development Bank has used GeoPoll, a survey technology, to better understand what communities in developing economies need. It collects data from mobiles, such as preferences for different foods and the effectiveness of local aid programs.

The use of such databases is spurring job opportunity. “An understanding of big data, including its limitations, is essential for a successful public manager,” says Ian at Schulich.

As the barriers between public and private sectors are broken down, some development organizations have been through restructurings. The World Bank, for instance, has tried to remove regional barriers to information sharing, and is creating pools of specialists in areas such as agriculture and finance.

Shifting structures at large organizations means there is a greater emphasis on managerial skills than in times past.

In the private sector, restructuring is relatively easier to accomplish, but public sector organizations do not have this luxury, says Henrik at California State. “The challenge is to teach our students how to manoeuvre in such uncertain environments.”

The problem for global public sector organisations is that they face a complex range of educational qualifications. Relevant master’s degree subjects range from public administration to peace studies.

Executives too face a widening choice of organizations in which to generate a social impact. This ranges from corporate social responsibility units to impact investment firms.

Total spend in 2013 on CSR initiatives reached $15 billion, according to EPG, an economic consulting firm.

Education giant Pearson's impact venture fund has hired from business schools. This year it pledged an additional $50 million to invest in education in Africa and Asia.

For all global development organizations, they are increasingly seeking managers who have private sector experience.

Salaries tend to be lower in the public sector, but this does not put off students, according to Kathy at the University of Phoenix. “Students in the MPA program have stated overwhelmingly that they have a desire to help people,” she says.