Watch out for bobbies with BAs

An increasing number of public service employees are graduates, says Paul Gosling
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The Independent Online
Listening to Gordon Brown talking about holding down state expenditure it would be easy to overlook the public sector as a graduate recruiter. Yet public bodies continue to be major employers, and an increasing proportion of their intake is of graduates.

Take the armed services. Ten years ago, only half of Sandhurst students training to become army officers were graduates. Today, the figure is 87 per cent. Roly Cockman, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, says that graduates are more likely than non-graduates to get through the selection process, and to complete the course. "People who chose not to go to university were people without so much long-term potential," he explains.

A similar situation applies in the police. Gone are the days when steady plodders who were not too bright could rise within the service. Mr Cockman says that a growing proportion of even ordinary beat bobbies are now graduates.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) praises the graduate liaison office at Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabularies for spreading the message that police forces now actively recruit graduates. Degree disciplines involving information and communication technology, accounting, financial management and the social sciences are all welcomed by police forces.

Nick Bennett, secretary to ACPO's personnel and training committee, says: "There is always an advantage in having specialists. Future leaders of the service must understand how things work in society, and how to control budgets. We are looking for diversity and skills."

The National Health Service is also committed to the continued recruitment of graduates, and has a long-term general management training scheme for graduate entrants. Some commentators have speculated that the demise of the NHS internal market, which had generated more jobs for managers in the health service, might lead to a reduction in recruitment of graduates. But the Department of Health stresses that the training scheme is secure.

In local government, individual councils are still employing large numbers of graduates, but the coordination of local authorities' graduate recruitment has been damaged by last month's closure of the publicly-funded Metra recruitment agency for councils. Eventually, the Local Government Management Board (LGMB) is likely to take over graduate recruitment co-ordination, but this may take several months to arrange. Graduates and undergraduates interested in a local government career might usefully investigate a dedicated website ( jobsearch) that has so far signed up 20 councils, which are placing job vacancies online. The LGMB, which is responsible for the website, expects to sign up dozens more councils in future months.

Katy Nicholson, spokeswoman for Reed Personnel Services, the recruitment agency, says that more graduates should consider the public sector as a career option. "While formal graduate trainee schemes are rare, look out for the few exceptions, such as trainee support programmes for graduates studying towards the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy qualification while they are working in a public sector accounts department," she suggests.

"Graduate-level vacancies are normally advertised openly in the national press whenever they arise, although they may well not be specifically billed as graduate trainee posts. At this level, relevant work experience is especially useful to make your CV stand out from the rest.

"To succeed in gaining entry to today's public sector, experience that can demonstrate your customer service orientation and skills certainly helps. While experience that underlines your public sector ethos can help - such as voluntary or charity work you have undertaken - experience that demonstrates that you can work in a team and meet business targets can be as important.

"Increasingly, relevant specialised degrees do help graduate prospects, especially if these have work experience built in. Marketing, tourism, IT or finance degrees are particularly sought by specific public sector departments. In addition, with the public sector more and more driven to meet and surpass commercial standards, business degrees are becoming more welcome at entry level."

David Kemsley, regional manager of the public sector division of Hays Accountancy Personnel, says that, although public bodies are now probably recruiting fewer staff than in the past, the quality of their training schemes can make it worth making the effort to get a job with them. "The public sector as a whole has a well-established graduate recruitment scheme within accountancy," he says. "Hospitals and local authorities provide very, very good training. They are extremely supportive of relevant extra studies."

It remains true, though, that public sector salaries are lower than those at the top of the private sector, with less pay variation between the best and worst recruits. But many people will feel that supporting the public in a not-for-profit service has its own rewards.

It is also true that this Government's potentially far-reaching public sector management reforms should mean that exciting times lie ahead for staff, with fast career progression for high-calibre recruits.