Town halls refresh their talent pools

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The Independent Online
There's more to a career in local government than council tax and parking tickets. Local councils throughout England, Scotland and Wales employ more than 2.5 million people from managers and administrators to town planners and environmental health officers.

"Local government offers a wide range of opportunities now, and supports its staff to develop the professional qualifications they will need to get on," says Tim Hodey, manager of Local Government Opportunities (LGO), local government's recruitment information service. "Training and personal development is very much at the heart of the local authority remit."

Local government in Britain is structured in one of two contrasting ways. In Scotland, Wales and parts of England, a single-tier, all-purpose council is responsible for all local authority functions - bodies known as unitary or metropolitan authorities and, in London, boroughs. The rest of the country has a two-tier system in which responsibilities are divided between a district and a county council.

Job opportunities with local councils are handled locally. And differences in structure, such as between rural councils and metropolitan authorities, can result in a variety of job titles to describe the same position. However, the LGO provides a centralised information service detailing local government vacancies through its internet Job Search service.

Although there is a huge breadth of job opportunities in local government, those areas employing the most people - and so, offering the greatest opportunities for potential applicants - are professional areas such as law, architecture and town planning; management; administration; technical and support services.

Salaries in each of these sectors tend to be below those available in equivalent positions within the public sector. However, Hodey insists, workers in local government enjoy a number of unique benefits.

"It's a more secure working environment, for a start," he claims. "As employers, local governments have led the way in developing flexible-working and equal-opportunity practices, too." Then there's the appeal of being in public service. "Many people are attracted by the chance to really do something of benefit and value for their community."

Because of its role - to implement and manage central government policy at a local level at the public's expense - local government is subject to change on a regular basis. As a result, reorganisation is common - ensuring frequent opportunities for staff to move across different departments and disciplines and so develop their skills.

Change has its downsides, though. Significant re-structuring and efficiency measures introduced throughout local government in recent years hit staff morale. But this situation is now improving as new structures stabilise. And although local government no longer promises jobs for life, there is an increased emphasis on staff development and training.

People can move into local government in a number of ways. Many start in administration and support services where there are openings for people at all levels - from school and college leavers to graduates and those seeking a career change.

Others apply to work in professional areas - such as architecture, planning or environmental health. Many of these applicants will have done degrees relevant to their chosen field and achieved professional qualifications. Others will have studied more general subjects - such as geography - to degree level. If taken on, they will be expected to achieve professional qualifications once on the job.

A small but growing number of local councils now run graduate recruitment schemes. Manchester City Council, for example, has run its graduate programme for two years. Eve Martin, Manchester council's head of organisation development, said the move is in response to a need for more and better qualified managers. But it is also an attempt to lower the age profile of the council's staff.

"A lot of local authorities are middle-aged," she explained. "It's an obvious concern. We want to attract young people into our workforce." A particular attraction is the council's promise to support successful applicants complete a part-time MBA.

Another way into local government, and one where opportunities are fast- growing, is as a manager. Once, specialists in a particular field moved up to become managers of their department. Increasingly, local authorities are seeking all-round managers and a number are introducing management recruitment and training schemes.

One of a small but growing number of management recruitment and development schemes is run by Westminster City Council. The scheme, now in its third year, is open to graduate applicants and staff members who may or may not have a degree.

"We launched the scheme because most of those coming up through the management ranks where from professional disciplines but not trained in management," explained Lorraine Pitt, Westminster council's personnel controller. But local government is changing. "It is becoming a more challenging workplace as the problems that must be dealt with cut across a number of different departments, disciplines and specialist areas."

To find out more about careers in local government, visit the LGO's web site at: www.datalake.com/lgo where there is career training information and Job Search detailing current vacancies.

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