There's no shame in going public

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Despite low moral and fewer opportunities for graduates, working in the public sector can provide a unique sense of satisfaction, writes Paul Gosling.

Employment in the public sector is not the well-paid, cosy job for life it was once held to be. But the NHS is still the largest employer in Europe, with one million staff; and local and central government are not far behind. Graduates who are looking for interesting work with a sense of purpose should certainly give the public sector serious consideration.

Morale, though, is poor at the moment, particularly among teachers and nurses, following the Government's decision to defer part of their latest pay awards. This follows a period of 15 years of permanent revolution within the public services, which has made jobs less secure, more scarce and often worse paid, at least compared to similar jobs in the commercial sector.

There is also less scope for promotion than in the past. The average age of staff in local government, for instance, is now much lower than it was 10 years ago. Older workers have taken early retirement, and now even senior managers can be in their early 30s, creating a blockage for graduates seeking career progression.

The Local Government Management Board, which helps councils recruit and train their staff, says this should not put off graduates. It should, though, encourage them to plan their careers more carefully, find out more about their future employers, and investigate the organisations that councils do business with. Many services that local authorities and the NHS used to provide themselves are now undertaken by companies and charities on their behalf, and these organisations can offer good employment prospects.

"It is true that graduates can find it difficult to get into local government, but councils are still taking on a lot of graduates," says Tim Hodey, careers information officer with LGMB. "We get so many graduates coming to see us wanting places in graduate training programmes, but not all councils can afford to offer these now. But local authorities are very good at training their staff, so people who come in get well trained anyway."

This view is shared by Yvonne Hambridge, recruitment manager at Metra, an agency that helps local authorities recruit staff. "There are very few graduate traineeships coming through now," she says. "Even those that are, are asking for two years' work experience - which is a contradiction in terms, really. It is difficult for graduates to get experience in local government."

Ms Hambridge says that graduate trainees now earn a starting salary of about pounds 11,000 to pounds 12,000, which is significantly lower than that on offer a few years ago. She warns that graduates may often need to apply for jobs they are apparently over-qualified for, because of the intense competition for vacancies. They will also usually have to do their own secretarial support, with many clerical, typing and receptionist jobs made redundant in recent years.

But there is not a single picture across all the disciplines within local government. An enormous variety of skills are needed within each council, ranging from engineers, to planners, architects, solicitors and property managers. The two largest employment sectors are teaching and social work. Reported recent skill shortages have included environmental health and trading standards officers, while the shortage of qualified social workers has led some councils to recruit from overseas.

Graduate entrants will often need not only to have a good first degree, but also a relevant, vocational, post-graduate qualification. This might be in town planning, teaching or social work, for example. But Metra advises graduates not to rush into an MBA straight from their first degree. While MBAs that specialise in public administration are valued in local government, they may be regarded as worthless if not combined with practical experience. A good vocational qualification is often more important that an academic degree, says Metra.

Central government recruitment has also been heavily affected by expenditure constraint, and some departments recruit hardly any new staff. Customs & Excise was at one time a major recruiter of graduates, but has taken on very few since 1990. Most Inland Revenue graduate recruits are part of the fast-track system for high flying managers - but there are only about 300 graduates recruited each year as high flyers across the whole of the Civil Service. In many departments candidates, in practice, need a degree for jobs that once needed A levels.

The NHS is now so diffuse that there is enormous variation in recruitment practice across the country. While some trusts are recruiting graduates, others are not. The creation of the internal market initially created a demand for graduates as managers and administrators, but the internal market is now being dismantled. The NHS Confederation, which represents hospital trusts, believes, though, that the recent emphasis on securing good managers is permanent. A general management training scheme is in place for graduates entering the NHS, but its operation is currently under review.

There is, in truth, no longer a single "public sector" - more a collection of decentralised bodies operating differing staffing practices. But figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters shows one factor that is consistent across the public services. Pay is still overwhelmingly determined by a rigid structure of grades. While the salaries of the lowest paid graduate entrants in the public sector is competitive with the private sector, average starting salaries, and those of the highest paid graduates, are much lower than those in commerce. Some of the old public sector stereotypes remain true.