Skip To Main Content
two businesswomen speak with their colleague in an office
The Profession

The many roads to a public sector career

For those drawn to careers at the federal, provincial or municipal level, there are a number of ways to get started on your journey

two businesswomen speak with their colleague in an officeThe Federal Student Work Experience Program is one way for prospective public service employees to get great exposure, especially while working towards a CPA designation (Getty Images/Paul Bradbury)

Many CPAs and CPAs-to-be look to the public sector when embarking on their career. Getting started on that path, however, differs considerably from private-sector careers. For insights on trends and issues impacting the sector, check out CPA Canada’s Public Sector Conference, happening October 19-21, which includes keynote speakers, panel discussions and live Q&As. For insights on the different ways to forge a path into the sector, read on.


For CPA David Lao, senior financial analyst with Transport Canada, his entry point was the Financial Officer Recruitment and Development Program—a national graduate recruitment program administered by the Treasury Board Secretariat for university students studying accounting.

“It’s a great program because you get to rotate through different sections and areas of accounting, such as operations, financial policy, internal audit, budgeting, planning and financial systems transformation,” he says.

The application process is rigorous, as it involves an interview and exam prior to being placed in a qualified pool. Applications start in September/October of each year. Candidates must supply a resume, transcripts and proof of education and must also confirm their graduation date. “Even after you get a verbal offer, you need to go through security clearance,” says Lao.

The advantage of this approach is that people have the opportunity to try different types of accounting positions and discover their interests before making any career decisions, he says.

Once the candidate is hired, the government will provide them with training that may be used towards the practical experience requirement of the CPA designation. For those who have already received the CPA designation, “the government departments provide adequate support to ensure CPAs and financial officers meet their annual professional development requirement with courses by CPA Canada,” says Lao. [The various provincial and territorial CPA bodies also offer professional development options.]


The Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP) is another way for university students to explore whether a public sector career is right for them.

“Departments love to bring in new talent through the student bridging mechanism,” says Lao. “If you work for them as a student, the team will likely offer you a full-time position upon graduation. Provincial programs, such as the Ontario Internship Program, also offer opportunities for students to explore their options.”

CPA Shannon Nauss, acting manager, financial management community development, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, started with the FSWEP, where she worked through different areas before taking on a full-time position once her university studies were completed.

“Joining the federal public service as a student can provide valuable experience while you are working toward your CPA designation and can open the door to so many future career opportunities,” says Nauss.

She notes that CPAs can work in various areas of finance/accounting, from financial advisory services to operations to program delivery. “Every department has a finance team and CFO,” she explains. “You don’t have to stay in one position or department or location; there are so many opportunities within the one employer. You’re not just siloed in a finance position either—you can move to different positions inside and outside of finance. Your career is really what you want to make of it.”

Agencies such as the Canada Revenue Agency and Auditor General of Canada also hire a lot of CPAs.

Another option that Lao recommends is the Canadian Armed Forces. “It offers a less traditional path for a lot of financial officers, but you can have an interesting career working as an army accountant, financial services administrator or logistics officer,” he says. “And they will provide what you need to get your CPA.”


To chart a path within the provincial public sector, you can start by researching opportunities with offices that are pre-approved to train CPAs, such as the auditor general's. Provincial CPA bodies are a good resource for learning more about available CPA pre-approved programs and other experience pathways.

“Provincial CPA bodies have lists of pre-approved, monitored programs offered by employers in the public sector. These also allow students in the CPA program to satisfy all their CPA Practical Experience Requirements,” says Martha Jones Denning, associate director with the Public Sector Accounting Board (PSAB).

In particular,  Jones Denning notes that  “legislative audit or comptroller offices can provide a unique, immersive training experience for CPAs looking to get into the provincial public sector.”


Municipal careers stand apart in terms of approach, says CPA James Sabourin, senior treasury analyst, Risk Management and Systems, for the City of Ottawa where he leads financial risk management and treasury compliance processes. He has gained experience in accounting and financial reporting, financial services and systems, financial planning and treasury.

The main path to a municipal career is through contract work, he explains. “One of the challenges of getting into public service is that a lot of permanent jobs don’t get posted and seniority often comes into play,” he says. “That’s why a lot of people have to start at the contract level.”

Contracts typically run for six months at a time. Sabourin spent a year and a half doing contract work before a full-time position came up. “Going from contract to contract gave me the breadth of experience to see how the puzzle works from different angles, which worked to my benefit,” he says.

Unlike the federal and provincial governments, municipal financial operations are centralized under one department, but that doesn’t limit your choices, Sabourin adds. “There are different disciplines you can pursue, such as financial reporting, process support for departments, systems development and more.”

For those looking to improve their odds in the municipal sector, in addition to the CPA Canada Public Sector Certificate program, Sabourin recommends the Municipal Finance Officers Association of Ontario course offerings. “They provide a lot of broad-based training as well as very detailed courses that give you deep training on specific areas of municipal finance,” he says.

As at the provincial level, you can also pursue opportunities with pre-approved programs in some municipalities, such as the City of Edmonton.


Sabourin is quick to dispel the misconceptions around public-sector work. “People believe it’s hard to move up or slow moving and it’s all formality. That’s simply not true. Having a CPA doesn’t limit you to just finance. I have lots of colleagues in departments like public health. One is leading the charge on pandemic scheduling, another is working in childcare and yet another in community housing. With your CPA, you have the opportunity to get out of pure finance roles and get more into government operations and see how you can make a difference every day.”

Another avenue is volunteering with the Public Sector Accounting Board (PSAB) which provides a platform to enact change and improvements to government accountability, for the use of public resources.


If you’re considering a career in the public sector or want to advance your career in the area, be sure to find out about CPA Canada’s two-level public sector certificate program. And you won’t want to miss the Public Sector Conference being held October 19-21, 2021. This year’s lineup includes top-notch speakers, interesting panel discussions and a range of sessions on the theme of Championing a new reality.


Given that the public sector has its own unique traits, it’s useful to do some research beforehand. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

1. Bilingualism can be a significant asset in the federal sector, especially for those hoping to secure senior positions.

2. Find out if the school you are attending offers co-op programs. If a co-op program is not available, check out the Federal Student Work Experience Program or provincial internship offerings.

3. Be prepared for the application process. Some panels will provide a list of questions in advance of an interview, so be sure to put together your best responses in advance and write down key points. “The more organized your response, the better your chances of scoring higher on your evaluation,” says CPA David Lao, senior financial analyst with Transport Canada.

4. Get to understand your community. “Networking is very important,” says CPA Shannon Nauss, acting manager, financial management community development, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Government of Canada.