Public Services Management: Sponsor a student: Sarah Hegarty reports on the revival of a scheme to encourage graduates to take up careers in local government

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The Independent Online
BESET by ever-changing rules and regulations, hammered by government ministers and the media, local authorities could not be blamed for feeling unwanted and unloved. But as the selfcentred 1980s give way to the 'caring 1990s' there are signs that the beleaguered public sector is finding new friends.

'There's a growing interest among graduates in public sector work,' says Warwick University careers adviser Lesley Knaggs. 'I keep hearing the message that graduates want to put something back into the community.'

This is backed up by figures. The Central Services Unit of the Graduate Employment Service reports that the number of graduates entering local authorities and public bodies has steadily increased, from 23.8 per cent of university graduates in 1987 to 26.1 per cent in 1991. In the polytechnic sector, the number has gone from 16.8 per cent to 17.6 per cent over the same period.

This could not have come at a better time for the revival of a scheme, launched four years ago by the local authority associations, to encourage students into local government careers. The Local Government Student Sponsorship Scheme, which provides work placements for second-year students and sponsorship in their final year, aims to give students a taste of local government work and a job when they graduate. It is run by Simon Cooper at the local authority recruitment agency, Metra.

'We want to make students aware of the fact that a career in local government is exciting and challenging,' he says. He recognises that the recession means local authority employers are in a stronger position than they were during the boom recruitment years and may not see the need to offer placements. 'But we still feel it's important to make committed and able students aware of the opportunities on offer.'

The scheme began in 1989, when the public sector faced recruitment problems, and placements were aimed at skills shortage areas such as law, civil engineering and social services. This year the emphasis is on general management. 'We are hoping this will encourage more local authorities to take part,' says Linda Hockey of the Local Government Management Board (LGMB), which is putting up the pounds 10,000 sponsorship.

Students who apply have to show some knowledge of and interest in local government, and shortlisted candidates are then referred to local authorities who have applied to offer placements. The 10 successful students will each receive a five-week placement, for which they are paid at least pounds 100 a week, and a pounds 500 bursary. The deadline for student applications was 30 April; authorities have until 24 May.

Dorset County Council was one of the founder members of the scheme. In the first year it took on two trainee accountants, then one of the most difficult professions to recruit. In 1991 it recruited a librarian, and in 1992 two occupational therapists. Mike Gant, training officer, says all the staff have stayed with the council, but wonders aloud whether that is because of the scheme or the recession.

Matthew Bennion-Pedley successfully applied to the scheme in 1990, while doing a politics degree at Cambridge. 'I saw it as the opportunity to get a foot in the door ahead of everyone else.' Apart from his interest in politics, Mr Bennion-Pedley had no other knowledge of local government. 'I wouldn't have considered a job in local government at all - after all, it doesn't have the best image. But when I arrived I realised there were opportunities to get things moving.'

After graduating he joined Dorset, and is now working his way through accountancy qualifications - another surprise decision. 'I had no great desire to be an accountant.' He became interested in social services and education work, and is working on the new funding formula for special schools. 'I enjoy working closely with head teachers, and the feeling that I am helping people.'

As well as vetting students, the scheme checks that authorities can offer good work experience. 'We judge authorities on the quality of the placement they offer and the benefit to the students,' says Simon Cooper. Authorities looking for a 'person Friday' would not be encouraged.

At Essex County Council, Mike Keedwell, principal personnel officer, agrees that the placement scheme involves extra work. 'It can be time-consuming. But we try to give a mixture of project and team work.' He thinks that graduates often expect too much of a placement. 'We stress to them at the interview stage that it's not all fun and games; there are elements of drudgery and everyone has to do those sometimes.'

But some graduates wonder whether local authorities are geared up to employ them at all. Kate Evans (not her real name) joined a London borough after graduating with a degree in social policy. She left two years later, frustrated with the rigid hierarchy which she felt had wasted her talents.

'I was interested in committee administration and there appeared to be good opportunities in local government,' she says. She felt she knew what to expect: 'I had asked all the right questions at the interview. And when they sent me a detailed job description, I assessed myself, on my experience, as fitting in about half-way up the salary scale.'

She was surprised to be offered a job at the bottom of the salary range, but thought she could move up quickly. 'I was told you could move up by annual increment, and that if you proved yourself you could get there in a year. But I came to realise that that was likely to be the exception.'

Ms Evans feels councils should put more effort into the kind of work they can offer graduates, their training and career progression. 'I have a management qualification, but I was never given anyone to supervise, nor any supervisory training. And there was no graduate management training scheme. If they had invested in something like that, they could have got back what they'd put in.'

Nicola Jervis joined Essex County Council as a personnel trainee after winning a place on the sponsorship scheme. She admits that the money was a draw, particularly after a self-financed masters degree. But now she feels that pay is the main drawback to encouraging more graduates into local government.

'I've been here for two years and I'm still on a lower salary than a (private sector) graduate starting salary.'

But at Warwick University's careers service, Lesley Knaggs is sure the tide is turning for local government. 'This is not a flash in the pan. It will be interesting to see what happens next year when the full extent of what's happening in local government becomes known. It would be a pity if we get more interest just when there are fewer opportunities.'

At the LGMB, Linda Hockey is also confident that there is a definite pro-public sector trend. 'There is real interest in local authority employment at the moment. Young people are concerned to help the environment and be responsible citizens. It's not like the 1980s when everything was megabucks.'

(Photograph omitted)