Anna Lomas: 'For every private sector role, you are likely to find its public sector equivalent'

Event manager, Voluntary, Not-for-Profit and Public Sector Careers Fair, University of Manchester
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The Independent Online

The Public Sector: the place to be or a place to hide? With applications to the Civil Service up 22 per cent, those to the NHS Management Training scheme up by 83 per cent and Teach First seeing a 90 per cent increase, things are definitely happening in the public sector.

Over the past six months, there has been an explosion of interest from graduates. Having personally worked in the public sector for the past 10 years, this comes as no surprise. Yes, that age-old truism of the salaries being lower still holds, but when you consider the sheer breadth of opportunities available across the sector and within its individual organisations, herein lies the appeal.

For every private sector role, you are likely to find its public sector equivalent. Want to be a lawyer? Consider the Government Legal Service. A scientist or engineer? Then there’s GCHQ or the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, among others. Degree in languages? Foreign & Commonwealth Office perhaps. Then there are councils, the NHS, universities, government agencies...

Once inside, another commonly held belief again holds true: the benefits are generally very good with flexible working hours, generous leave and excellent training and development support all offered across the sector.

This love affair between graduates and the public sector is, however, a relatively new phenomenon. In 2003 it was reported that almost |75 per cent of graduates did not want to work in public sector organisations. It doesn’t take much to deduce that this sudden renaissance must be, at least in part, related to the economic downturn. Indeed there have been a series of recent press articles in which graduates make no excuses for their switch of allegiances. Many graduates are seeing the public sector as a safe haven.

“I didn’t apply to the public sector originally because the pay was not good. But none of that matters when you just want security,” claims one graduate. It is certainly good for the public sector to have a new injection of talent but a shame that some are seeing it as risk-free option rather than a positive career move.

But just how risk-free an option is it really? Across the sector, a number of jobs exist by virtue of funding for specific projects and initiatives. While some of this funding is public money, a proportion will be inextricably linked to the private sector and its availability compromised by the current recession.

Changing priorities from the Government may also leave dependent projects vulnerable and we only need look back a few months to see how a number of public sector organisations were affected by having assets within Icelandic banks. The public sector is by no means immune to what’s happening around it. In fact it is the belief of one local government recruitment manager that “the recession will hit the public sector in two or three year’s time”.

Another point to bear in mind is that with the increased interest in public sector opportunities, there also comes increased competition for training schemes and jobs. Although the NHS, for example, plan to interview around 20 per cent more candidates for their management scheme, they will not be increasing the number of actual positions available. Who knows – as the recession bites deeper, scaling back may even be on the cards for some organisations. All things considered, securing a position within the public sector may not be the easy alternative for graduates after all.

Applying for a role within the public sector requires as much consideration, attention and effort as any other. Public sector organisations will be looking for the same calibre of applicants as private sector employers. Moreover, those who work and recruit within the public sector are proud of their role in public service and will be looking for candidates who demonstrate a genuine commitment to pursuing a career within the public sector – not just looking for a place to hide.

Acquiring an understanding of the range of opportunities available is as good a starting point as any. Events such as The Voluntary, Not-for-Profit and Public Sector Careers Fair (in Manchester on 4 March) showcase the range of possible career options that can be found and provide the chance to speak with those who work in the sector, to find out whether it can offer the right environment, benefits and roles to follow long-term career plans. Similar events are held around the country and details can be found at