Benefits of going public

The public sector needs professionals in every discipline, from law to fine art. Virginia Matthews reports

There is one employment sector where salaries and jobs are on the increase, where ethnic minorities are often positively welcomed and where gender and sexual orientation does not matter nearly as much as talent and drive. It's a sector which has had to pull itself up by the bootstraps to counter a highly negative image, but one which on the whole values lives more than profits. Surprisingly though, it is still crying out for graduates.

There is one employment sector where salaries and jobs are on the increase, where ethnic minorities are often positively welcomed and where gender and sexual orientation does not matter nearly as much as talent and drive. It's a sector which has had to pull itself up by the bootstraps to counter a highly negative image, but one which on the whole values lives more than profits. Surprisingly though, it is still crying out for graduates.

Once the butt of a thousand jokes about paperclip-counting, the public sector is going through a rapid period of change. Most public sector staff have become accustomed to radical reform as programmes such as "Agenda for Change" - currently sweeping through the health service - continue to make their mark.

A growing number of graduates appear to care as much about doing something "worthwhile" as about climbing to the top of the earnings tree. For graduates who want their career to make an impact on people's lives, the public sector may be the right choice.

With just 80,000 or so recognised graduate placements on offer each year (fewer than half the available pool of graduates) the majority of young people searching out graduate-level openings after university are forced to look beyond the official schemes towards one of the hundreds of professional training schemes on offer. Which is where the public sector comes in, according to Jayne Rowley, publishing director of Graduate Prospects.

"According to the latest figures, just 6 per cent of public sector employees are under 25 years of age, compared with a national average of 14 per cent," Rowley says. "Public sector jobs are desperately short of young talent, but in many cases, are simply not marketing themselves properly. Some of them deliberately don't use the word 'graduate' in their recruitment material or on their websites because they are frightened of discriminating against non-graduates, and it is very much up to the job-seeker to interpret just who it is they are looking for. While more experienced job-seekers understand that recruitment terms such as 'must have analytical skills' are often a tacit invitation to graduates, inexperienced 21-year-olds doing a trawl of the key public sector sites may not realise that these are appropriate jobs for them."

Rowley also believes that there is a misconception among some graduates that there are just three key jobs in the public sector: teacher, doctor or police officer. In truth, she says, one of the main advantages of a public sector job is the sheer variety of careers on offer. Whether it is architecture or the arts that grabs you, environmental work, transport, food, social work, management, housing, tourism or even the security services, there is at least one job in a branch of public service - in national, regional or local government - to suit your talents and ambitions. Not to mention a clutch of specialist jobs - be they in marketing, finance or HR perhaps - that will be represented among the support staff.

Rowley says: "My advice is to forget the notion that the public sector isn't for you because you don't happen to want to be a teacher or a policeman. If you think more broadly about where you could pursue your chosen career - be it as an accountant or an administrator - you will see that every public sector job you can think of has many associated jobs that will include your own chosen specialism. That includes the frontline jobs such as teacher or policeman."

According to Fiona Christie, public service specialist careers adviser at the University of Manchester, there are three graduate training schemes that currently stand head and shoulders above many others in terms of their reputation and the efficiency with which they are organised. They are the two-year NHS General Management Training Programme, the Civil Service Fast Stream and the National Graduate Development Programme run on behalf of local government.

"What's good about these three programmes is that any graduate, whatever their degree subject, can apply for them and they're both very popular with applicants and very stable in terms of the numbers they take on every year," says Christie. "What is less positive about them though is that they are still very small programmes in terms of numbers and are heavily over-subscribed."

Christie warns that it while it isn't always easy to get access to information about careers in some public sector professions - and she picks out local government as an example of this - a patient slog of what are sometimes hard-to-navigate public sector websites reveals just how welcome graduates actually are.

Local authorities are long-standing recruiters of graduates in anything from law to fine art and channel them into professional roles in planning, environmental health, teaching, law, social work and economic development among other things. In all, there are some 400 different occupational areas in local government and 50 jobs under six different headings in environmental services alone - among them, trading standards, planning and licensing, highways and maintenance.

For those graduate teachers who are concerned about low pay, the message from the Teacher Training Agency is that the financial rewards are improving all the time - particularly for those who teach priority subjects such as maths and modern languages, where a system of "golden hellos" is now in operation. Teaching is increasingly being seen as a graduate-only profession, with the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) being the first stage.

For those number-crunchers who shy away from a career inside a slick City accountancy firm, there are many varied and transportable opportunities in accountancy throughout the public sector. Graduates need to find an employer first and then look to qualification via the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).

Would-be crime-busters may turn to the police for a career, but whatever their academic achievements, a spell as a police constable is obligatory. It is estimated that one in five new police recruits is now a graduate - a development that police chiefs say is vital in tackling modern crime such as internet pornography or international terrorism. Once in the force, graduates can apply to the fast-track High Development Scheme, which leads to the rank of inspector within five to seven years.

In terms of pay, public sector wages have been rising faster than salaries in the private sector in recent months, even though graduates joining private enterprise still tend to earn more. The pay gap between men and women is less marked in the public sector though and graduate trainee starting salaries - at £20,000-plus - are, says the Association of Graduate Recruiters, "looking buoyant".

If many parts of the private sector struggle to make the business pages with their reforms, changes in public services are both visible and controversial. For those who work in it, the public sector does actually matter.

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