Class acts: Why public sector careers are more attractive than ever

The charity, voluntary and public sectors offer a good work/life balance, competitive salaries and benefits.

At first glance, things look pretty grim for today’s graduates. Leading employers have already cut graduate vacancies for 2009 by 17 per cent, according to the latest research – a statistic so heavily publicised in recent weeks that it must feel like a smack in the face to graduates at every turn. Scratch below the surface, however, and a different picture starts to emerge – certainly for university leavers willing to consider the non-commercial sector.

Indeed, the same research – by High Fliers – also found that employers in the public sector have actually stepped up their graduate vacancies. There are now over 51 per cent more entry-level positions for graduates. And according to the latest Association of Graduate Recruiters survey, public vacancies are expected to continue rising, with salaries up by 4 per cent too. Many employers in the voluntary and not-for-profit sector are reflecting this trend.

But what’s it really like working for these employers? And should graduates assume a decision to apply to work for one will enable them to escape the recession unscathed?

For graduates considering the public sector, the first thing to bear in mind is the huge breadth of opportunities, says Charlie Ball, deputy research director of HECSU (Higher Education Careers Services Unit).

“People automatically think of local government and the NHS, but other employers range from the Highways Agency to the Medicines Control Agency,” he says. “Practically any degree can be used effectively within these organisations – they need engineers, surveyors, HR, finance people and press people, just to name a few.”

Ball adds that despite the general perception of the public sector being staid, the reality is quite different. “The working culture may not be quite the same as many private sector organisations, but often it’s not as different as people think,” he says. “This sector has professionalised a lot in recent years, especially with tighter budgets leading to greater efficiency.”

Laura Wilkes, corporate policy and projects officer for Havering Council, London, adds that the public sector isn’t necessarily as bureaucratic as stereotypes suggest: “Where there are processes, there’s a good reason for them. You’re dealing with public money and the processes ensure that money is spent correctly. I think that’s why the systems in place don’t tend to feel like a burden.”

Having graduated with a degree in English and American studies in 2006, Wilkes decided she’d like to put her community spirit to use in her career. “That’s one of the great things about the public sector: you can make a difference to people’s lives. If I’m honest, I was also drawn to the good work-life balance and I’d say that my salary is on a par with many of my peers in the private sector.”

Having seen some of these peers devastated at not receiving their bonuses – or, worse still, losing their jobs or not getting one in the first place – Wilkes says she feels “a certain kind of security” within the public sector. “I realise that you never know what can happen in any sector, but in the back of my mind is the fact that public services will always be vital. I feel pretty safe, both in terms of my salary and my job, certainly at the moment.”

In TARGETjobs’ latest survey, students and fresh graduates named the public sector as the most attractive employment sector for the second year running. According to Malcolm Craig, who manages the graduate development programme on behalf of councils in the UK, a big pull is that they tend to be employed as a cohort. “We take 80 on at the same time every year and they really like that support network, where they can voice similar concerns and stay in touch throughout their careers.”

Craig reports that so far this year, they’ve seen a huge increase in applications – reaching 2,000 for just 80 graduate jobs. Gill Turnock, group director at the recruitment firm Sellick Partnership, also reports a surge in interest in the public sector. “We specialise in finance and accountancy and have found that with many commercial clients, they no longer offer full study support for qualifications like Cima and ACCA, whereas the public sector still offers excellent training packages. I don’t just mean that the course is paid for, but there’s a lot of support, like mentoring and time off for study.”

She adds that graduates tend to like the rotational nature of the graduate schemes, which means they get variety and sound experience early on.

When it comes to voluntary and not-for-profit employers, organisations (except the really big ones) are less likely to offer rotational schemes, but like the public sector they have become far more business-like in recent years, and usually offer good work/life balance and increasingly generous salaries and benefits. There is also the added benefit of early responsibility and the satisfaction of knowing that you are working for a worthy cause.

But with these organisations also reporting growing interest from graduates, you will need to make sure your CV stands out. “The quality of applications sometimes makes me want to cry,” says Jenny Edwards, head of fundraising and marketing at the charity CHASE. “The charity sector is no less professional than any other career choice for a graduate, but for some reason they don’t always see it that way. Graduates should not underestimate that the quality of their application must be nothing less than fantastic – including, where possible, volunteering opportunities. Above all, it should appear that they are committed to the sector, as opposed to this being just one of many career choices they’re thinking about.”

Edwards stresses that of all three sectors, charities are probably most at risk during a recession. “Charities depend on donations, and who knows how much these donations will suffer as a result of the recession over the next year or so? We are a business as much as any other in the sense that we have to make money and cover costs,” she says.

Emily Scott, training and volunteer support officer at the National Autistic Society – a role she took after graduating in 2007 – agrees. “I don’t think anyone’s job is completely safe at the moment, but I really do think that compared to my peers in the private sector, I feel a lot more secure. I think a big part of that is because in a charity, you tend to get nurtured, so your training and development is tailored to your role, with the consequence that you have a more key role earlier on in your career in than in some private sector organisations where you have to start at the very bottom and wait a long time for real responsibility and autonomy.”

Matthew Lock, who became a strategic development officer for the London Sports Forum for Disabled People after graduating last year, agrees. “My job feels safe largely because this organisation has been so supportive of me in terms of personal development.”

But Katie Carlton, who graduated with a 2:1 in geography from Cambridge last year, is a stark reminder that graduates should take nothing for granted. “On two separate occasions, I’ve got quite far down the line of applying for charities and the employer has suspended the application process altogether because they can’t afford to take anyone on. I am determined to persevere, but it is frustrating.”

Carlton has 10 A*s at GCSE and four|A-levels and she’s done voluntary work, as well as being president of the college geography society. “Yet I still can’t get a job in the charity sector,” she says.

‘Sales didn’t appeal – getting people on to college courses did’

Josie Scobling is PR and marketing assistant at Cornwall College. She graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism in 2007.

“I started out my degree thinking I’d like to go into TV production. By the end of it, I’d had a taste of other subjects such as PR and marketing, which I really liked, and in any case recruitment in the television industry was looking thin on the ground by the time I graduated.

I thought about the public sector straight away because it struck me as more interesting than the commercial alternative. Working with product sales didn’t appeal – getting people on to, say, college courses, did.

“I don’t think I thought about the public sector having more job security. But now that I’m here, I definitely feel safer. If I wasn’t in this job, I dread to think where I’d be now. A lot of the people who I graduated with are struggling.

Just because there are more graduate openings in this sector at the moment, I wouldn’t say the application process was any less competitive. If anything, more graduates are going for the jobs that do become available.

The stereotype of the public sector is that it’s really bureaucratic. I don’t find that. Generally, things get done. There are also myths around about lower salaries – again I haven’t found that. And the work/life balance is good too. My hours are generally 8.30am to 5pm.

Even if something came up in the private sector now, I wouldn’t take it. Commercial openings in PR and marketing tend to be about making money in-house or for clients, whereas in this job my focus is about educating people. I find that much more satisfying. What’s more, I can see the outcome of what I’m doing every day because I am surrounded by the students I’ve helped attract to the college.”

‘What I enjoy most is the contact with our supporters’

Guy Bower is the fundraising and events assistant at the medical research and support charity Ataxia UK. He graduated with a degree in English literature in 2007.

“I was very unsure about what career I would take after graduation. I didn’t want to continue studying, but nor was I interested in the obvious choices for an English graduate, such as publishing and advertising.

In my third year a friend asked me to help him with a grant application. It was for £8,000 to start up an organisation we’d been developing called New Exposure. It runs participatory photography projects for disadvantaged young people. The process made me realise that the skills I’d developed over the course of my degree – especially clear analytical thinking and written communication – were of great use in the charitable sector. We were awarded the grant and began the project.

New Exposure has been running for over a year, and I continue to work on it in my spare time. However, my full-time job is now with Ataxia UK. My role is to support everyone who fundraises for us and to help develop our overall fundraising strategy. What I enjoy most about it is the contact I have with our supporters. Also, knowing that the work I do is responsible for funding research projects and the welfare services we provide is a great motivator.

I applied for this job just before the financial crisis hit and I am glad I’m in it. Ataxia UK is well placed to survive the downturn. We have little dependence on corporate sponsorship, so the likelihood of us having a significant amount of funding stripped from us overnight is slim. Still, it remains up to us to work hard on behalf of our supporters, and to make sure they continue to see us as a worthwhile investment despite the difficult times.”