If you think a graduate career in the public sector is bureaucratic, unglamorous and dull, think again. While some of the outdated myths linger, the reality is that this sector offers a huge range of careers with early responsibility, excellent work/life balance, a healthy dose of autonomy and the opportunity to bring about genuine change in society. According to latest figures from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), the pay isn't bad either. Graduate salaries have risen 9.5 per cent during the last year alone, compared to a 2.3 per cent average across all graduate jobs.
"Graduates might well be surprised just how good public sector career opportunities are when they get beyond the stereotypes," says Carl Gilleard, chief executive, who points out that some of the best quality graduate fast-track schemes exist in this sector.
Beth Child, 29 is currently on the Civil Service's Fast Stream programme. She says the variety involved in her day-to-day job is "phenomenal". "I move into a completely different - and always stimulating - role every year, and there's the opportunity for secondments too," she says.
You have to be ready to take the reigns almost as soon as you take on a new assignment, Child says, but support is there if you need it. Her first role involved helping to set up a waste implementation programme for DEFRA "to change behaviour at a public, local authority and industry level. There are some pretty nasty landfill waste targets that we have to meet, so it's a massive programme." Child is now working on a national climate change programme. "You feel that you're involved in progressing things that will make a big difference to our future," she adds.
Sue Nixon, deputy head of marketing for Fast Stream says you'd be pushed to find an employer that offers as many jobs as the Civil Service, which is why they welcome a range of degrees (2.2 or above) and the scheme is divided into four strands. "Besides the general one, there are three specialist programmes - for economists, statisticians and those wanting to work in the Government Communications Headquarters," she says.
A strong social conscience and a thirst for a challenge attracts people to the National Graduate Development Programme within Local Government, says Eleanor Gasse, who is responsible for the scheme. "One of our trainees is about to work full-time on the Olympics team in a local authority in East London," she says.
The award-winning mentoring scheme and the bespoke postgraduate diploma that all trainees complete in local government management are also a big pull for university leavers, she adds. "The opportunity to do more academic learning that's funded and of immediate use in day-to-day work does seem to attract people."
All degree disciplines are welcome in this scheme too, although you will need a minimum of a 2.1 and some experience of working in the voluntary, charity or public sector.
The Graduate Development Programme at the Financial Services Authority (FSA) also accepts any degree discipline. Chris Grix, 26, joined the scheme in 2002. He says, "My priority was to join a good graduate scheme where I could actually use what I'd learned academically and I am doing just that."
Like other graduates, he was keen to embark on an ethical career. "Because of the FSA's strategic role - and the fact that the nature of the work is moral because we're concerned with protecting consumers - it was much more appealing," he says.
What he hadn't anticipated, however, was how much fun he'd have. "There's a great atmosphere here and there is a really good social scene," he says.
Even if you don't get onto a graduate programme, there are plenty of opportunities to progress quickly in the public sector. Terry Jones of AGCAS (Association of Graduate Recruitment Advisory Services) says, "If graduates go into a relatively low-level position, they are increasingly finding that if they show potential, they are moving through the ranks at speed."
Neil Seabridge, head of the Metropolitan Police Careers Team, says: "we have two schemes open to anyone with high potential and we are finding a correlation between educational performance and success at getting on them. We're a very progressive organisation and we need people of adaptability, intelligence and commitment who can take a long-term view into on how to improve the way the police organises itself."
'The biggest reward is the lifestyle'
ZOE LEUNG, 23, WORKS FOR HM REVENUE AND CUSTOMS AND IS TRAINING TO BE A TAX INSPECTOR
I always assumed I'd end up working as a City lawyer, but I got an eight-week internship at HM Revenue and Customs in the summer of my second year at university and they offered me a job at the end. I had really enjoyed my time there, which was in International Policy, so I accepted. I liked the fact that I was left alone to manage and organise my own workload, in the knowledge that the help was there if I wanted it. I got to liaise with assistant directors, plan my own meetings and write my own reports. I also liked that the stuff I was coming up with was used, not just filed away in a cupboard.
I started on the graduate scheme in September 2004. In the first year, I worked on other people's cases and this year, I've been running my own investigations.
The biggest reward is the lifestyle. There isn't the pressure of working hours that exists in the private sector. It's also interesting to have a different challenge every day. We never quite know what we'll have on our desk in the morning. I like the variety.
A lot of people think that if you work here, you must be a tax collector, but when you work here you soon realise that careers are a lot wider than that. I'd like to go into tax policy, particularly on an international level.