Many would think that working in public services means having a job for life, but Europe's loosest labour laws and a government drive to improve efficiency are leading more and more public bodies in the UK to cap or cut permanent staff.
But they are recruiting contractors instead, so there's never been a bigger marketplace in which to sell yourself - or a better one, with commissions falling and agencies offering the kind of benefits associated with permanent work.
The backbone of public service contracting is the back office support staff. It's work that many people find themselves doing after leaving university while they're finding their way in the job market. Ramit Monga, 24, is a typical contractor. He left university with a BA in international business from Lincoln University. He knew that he wanted to set up his own business but needed extra money to tide him over, so he took on temporary work in retail and banking before signing up with the recruitment consultants Eden Brown five months ago. Since then, he has been working for Ealing Council on its switchboard.
"I prefer temping in the public sector; the money's better and it's much more relaxed," he says. "It's more human. Retail is so focused on selling, selling, selling. This is more like serving." During the day, Monga runs his fledgling business, and from 4pm to 11pm works at Ealing Council fielding emergency calls for the fire brigade, hospitals, the police and social services. "We have to separate calls, prioritise them, and sometimes solve them," he says. "There are hundreds of thousands of people living in the borough, and all the services come under us at night. It's a lot of responsibility and it's challenging, but the staff are brilliant to work with."
Like Monga, many of this new generation of contract workers are young people looking for greater flexibility, often to give them time to travel. Many find themselves doing office jobs that don't always stretch them, but there's much more on offer if you have the right skills. Bronwyn Alexander, 25, became a teacher in part to keep herself out of an office, but when she came to London from New Zealand last year to get a taste of life in the big city she found herself doing administration. Now, she works as a supply teacher for AXCIS, earning £130 a day to do something she loves, while keeping the essential freedom of a temp.
"If you're a supply teacher you walk out of the school at 3.30pm and that's the end of the day. There's no planning, no marking, no meetings," she says. "You can just take off if you want, or take a long weekend if you feel like it." While working as a teacher, Alexander has been able to take trips to Austria, Scotland and Germany, but she admits that it hasn't always been an easy option. "It's been a challenge. The kids here are pretty tough," she says.
One person who has that to look forward to in a few years is Sharon Smith. Smith, 38, has been going through a once-in-a-lifetime experience of a different kind, moving from her childhood home in Scotland to England to start a family. She gave birth to her first son, Lee, 18 months ago. She may not have travelled across the world like Alexander, but the move from Argyllshire to Staffordshire was tough enough.
"When I moved here, finding a permanent job was a bit of a nightmare. I didn't know which trusts were looking for work," she says. "I only went to an agency as a last resort, but now I wish I'd done it years ago. They've done everything for me."
Despite 10 years' experience as a nurse in Scotland, Smith was worried that her 18 months away from work had left her unfamiliar with the newest protocols and procedures. So her agency, Corinth Medical, paid for a refresher course. "I can't thank them enough," she says. "Nursing isn't just a job, it's a life's commitment. Going back has been like going back to my family."
Contract work isn't always a question of plugging a gap or managing change - for some, it's a very lucrative career in itself. John Kick, 59, is an associate at Boyden, a leading recruitment agency specialising in management. Most of his work is on project reviews for central government, overseeing human resources for major government projects such as building Wembley Stadium or setting up ID cards.
For the last 18 months, Kick has spent most of his time on public sector contracts, but before that he worked in the private sector. He is part of an influx of private managers into the public sector to push through reforms. The public sector has sometimes had a bad reputation and is seen by some as sluggish and inefficient, but Kick says the more he has seen of it the more he respects it.
"In industry, the pace is fast but sometimes it slips over detail and it can be brutal," he says. "In the public sector it's not brutal, it has care and a more rigorous process. We only hear in the press about the projects that go wrong, but my experience is that private sector projects fail much more often than they do in the public sector."
Obviously there's a big difference between building a school, teaching there and answering the phones, but there is one thing that all contractors have in common: "There's no question that the best part is being able to do what I want to do when I want to do it," says Kick.
How much will I be paid?
More. It depends on what you're doing of course, but contract workers are generally paid more per day than their permanent colleagues.
Won't it mean that I lose benefits?
Not so much anymore. Agencies are increasingly offering sick pay, annual leave, and training to keep your skills up to date.
What about commission?
The cut taken by agencies can be from a little over 10 per cent to a staggering 30 per cent or more, so shop around.
What kind of skills are they looking for?
Any. The public sector is a leviathan. Public bodies recruit everyone from cleaners and admin assistants to managers and neurosurgeons on short term contracts.
How do I become a contract worker?
Join a local recruitment agency. If you know where you want to work, check with them to find out which agencies they use. To find a good local recruitment agency dealing with your specialism, visit the REC website: www.rec.uk.com
Tired of tying herself in knots, this woman turned to yoga and supply teaching
'It's wonderful to work part-time and do something less demanding so that I have more energy'
Debra Douglas, 43, is a supply teacher working in London for the agency Axcis
"My husband and I decided that we needed a change and now we're getting plans together to start running yoga holidays in Spain. We've bought a house out there and I'm training as a yoga teacher.
"I used to do a lot of aerobics but after years of jumping around I had a knee injury. I toddled along to yoga and after one class I was hooked. After doing yoga you have that quiet time and space. It really gave me time to think about what I wanted to do, and that's when I came up with this idea. I'm working three or four days a week as a supply teacher and the rest of the time I'll be able to jet off to Spain.
"I don't want to teach full-time any more. I don't have the energy it needs. I want something more tranquil, less stressful. But I do want to keep a hand in teaching, and I might go back to it full-time. I love the buzz of teaching and the interaction with the kids, and the feeling that my presence every day in the classroom makes a difference to the kids I'm teaching.
"But to do it well you've got to give a lot of self. Now I'm thinking more of myself and my family. I want to come home and be more than a zombie - it can do that to you sometimes. I want more energy for my family and myself.
"It's so easy to get stuck thinking, 'this is my job, I might as well keep going until I get my pension'.
"This has been a dream come true. It's a wonderful feeling to do something less demanding so that I have a bit more energy for my family and other things. It feels wonderful, really liberating."Reuse content