Graduate Recruitment: Apply to your local town hall: The changing role and structure of local government offers a wide range of career opportunities, says Philip Schofield

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The Independent Online
ONE IN eight employees - almost 3 million people - works in local government. The range of career opportunities is enormous, with more than 500 councils employing people in more than 500 occupational areas.

Although about a third of the jobs are in manual work, and many more are in relatively junior clerical posts, large numbers of graduates and professionally qualified people work in management or technical roles. These range from finance to fire-fighting, architecture to arts administration, engineering to environmental health, information technology to teaching, law to leisure services, public relations to personnel management. Many are in general administration, advising on and implementing policy.

Most local government is organised into two tiers. In England and Wales services are provided by county and district authorities, in Scotland by regional and district councils. County and regional councils provide larger services, such as education, highways, social services, strategic planning, police, waste disposal and careers services. District councils look after housing, local roads and footpaths, waste collection, and leisure and recreation. Only in Northern Ireland, six metropolitan areas of England and the London boroughs are all services provided by a single authority. The Government plans to replace the two tiers with single-tier or 'unitary' authorities throughout the UK.

Cuts in public expenditure, the creation of single-tier authorities and the opening up of services to compulsory competitive tendering will lead to a reduction in staff numbers. However, Tim Hodey, careers information officer of the Local Government Management Board, says prospects for graduates should remain good, and the work will be more challenging.

He believes that local government will follow the trend in industry and commerce so that 'organisations will become flatter and there will be a less structured hierarchy'. He adds: 'Few graduates can now expect to go in at quite a high level as a trainee. My advice is to get in at any level and gain as much experience as possible, rather than follow any strict stepping stones.

'There is a change in emphasis for local government officers. Before, they were strictly in administration in some departments, whereas now they are in a more competitive role, which hopefully is more attractive to graduates. They're managing contracts, fighting against outside contractors for contracts and fighting to provide the most efficient service. This should lead to a more exciting career and greater intellectual challenges.'

Although salaries rarely equal those in the private sector, local authorities generally have a good reputation as employers. There is a strong commitment to training and to helping staff obtain relevant professional qualifications in their chosen fields. Working arrangements are forward- looking, including flexitime, job sharing and part-time work. And local authorities are among the most meticulous in observing the spirit as well as the letter of legislation and 'codes of good practice' relating to equal opportunities. Mature graduates in particular are likely to find a warmer welcome than they will elsewhere.

The Association of Graduate Recruiters, whose members provide more than 80 per cent of UK vacancies for newly qualified graduates, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year by publishing a wide-ranging study, Roles for Graduates in the Twenty-First Century. This points out: 'Public sector employers have eliminated age as a consideration in recruiting graduates unless there is a demonstrable relationship to the requirements for a particular job. This is very different from the practices in the private sector, where age barriers in the recruitment of graduates are widespread.'

Graduates look on local government as an employer with mixed feelings. In some professions - such as teaching and social work - it is 'the' employer. It is attractive to librarians, museum workers and many civil engineers. But for many disciplines where local authorities are in competition with the private sector - such as finance, administration and the law - it is rarely seen as a 'blue-chip' employer. This is partly because graduates are not aware of the changes taking place in local government, and partly because local authorities do not promote themselves through the graduate careers services with the same professionalism as the private sector and civil service.

Details of many authorities offering professional, technical and managerial opportunities are listed in the handbook Catlog (Hobsons Publishing), available in graduate careers advisory services.

Tim Hodey may be contacted at the Local Government Management Board, Arndale House, The Arndale Centre, Luton, Bedfordshire LU1 2TS (0582 451166).

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