The joys of going public

Public sector employers are offering graduates increasingly better deals, says Virginia Matthews
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The Independent Online

Anyone who still believes that signing up for a job in the public sector means 30-odd years of wearing a sober suit, filling in forms in triplicate and falling asleep in trifling meetings should take a look at MI5. While "The Security Service", as it's officially known, has become the very symbol of James Bond-style anti-terrorism activity, its 2,000-strong workforce is - in common with rat-catchers, casualty doctors and fire-fighters - rooted firmly in today's public service.

Anyone who still believes that signing up for a job in the public sector means 30-odd years of wearing a sober suit, filling in forms in triplicate and falling asleep in trifling meetings should take a look at MI5. While "The Security Service", as it's officially known, has become the very symbol of James Bond-style anti-terrorism activity, its 2,000-strong workforce is - in common with rat-catchers, casualty doctors and fire-fighters - rooted firmly in today's public service.

The British graduate's on-off love affair with public employers has ebbed and flowed for some years now, alongside the political debate over public versus private in the country as a whole. Although the Eighties and early Nineties saw an explosion in private enterprise, and an accompanying decline in the reputation of public service, recent reinvestment in schools, hospitals and other public buildings has helped put the public sector back in the centre of Britain's economic life. According to the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, the public sector accounts for 25 per cent of the total UK workforce.

While in the past many graduates saw a role in health or housing as less glamorous and less lucrative than a career in a risk-taking, entrepreneurial blue-chip firm, the tide is turning firmly in favour of public service. According to recent studies, around one-third of graduates would now like to work in the public sector, compared with just under a third aiming for a career with a private company.

It isn't simply that working in social work, health, environment or education appeases the social conscience of so many graduates; it's also that graduate pay rates, career prospects and the desire to create a healthy work-life balance are often better in schools, hospitals and local authorities than they are in private firms.

In terms of choice of career, the still-vast public sector caters for every job or specialism imaginable. Aside from the obvious careers to be had in the NHS, say, the armed forces or teaching - not just front-line doctors, nurses, soldiers and teachers but the entire armoury of admin and support staff, together with every conceivable type of manager - there are tens of thousands of posts in finance and statistics, engineering and building, IT and computer science, national or local politics, tourism and leisure. Not to mention pest control, dog handling, housing, the fire service...

Last summer's Mori poll of 1,000 new graduates found that 32 per cent of students wanted to work for a public sector organisation, with many of them citing the desire to "do something worthwhile" and questioning whether their own need to "put something back" into society would be fulfilled in the profit-hungry private sector.

If students have, since time immemorial, had a more altruistic view of the importance of employment than other workers, the growing belief among students that the health service, politics or local government offers top-drawer career opportunities is by no means totally unselfish. The Mori survey also showed that aside from wanting to do something worthwhile with their lives, today's students have also prioritised salary, training and development opportunities and a reasonable balance between work and social or family life.

In the view of Jayne Rowley, head of publishing at Graduate Prospects - the commercial arm of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit - students have always had a "heightened sense of social responsibility", even if their desire to "do well in their careers" has often put them off joining the public sector. Today, she says, the two desires are wholly compatible.

"Career development opportunities in health or in local government have never been better," she says. "With the very real threat of a crisis in public sector recruitment now looming, public sector employers in all areas have transformed graduate recruitment and graduate career development into a really hot topic for all public employers."

A good example of Rowley's point is local government; where up to one-third of the current workforce is due to retire in the next 10 years and where just 6 per cent of the workforce is under 25, compared with 14 per cent of the UK workforce as a whole.

Little wonder then that the bigger local authorities have launched the National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP) in order to attract and retain some of the country's top young talent. The battle to attract graduates away from the traditionally cash-rich private sector and into public service is not an easy one though and in another industry - social work - recruitment problems are, in some parts of the country, already at crisis point.

Despite the recruitment shortfall experienced in many areas of public service, graduate recruits to the NHS's two-year general management training scheme talk enthusiastically about wanting to "make a difference to people's lives". Now Europe's largest employer, the £60bn organisation expects many of its graduate trainees to be at chief executive level within 10 years of completing the scheme.

The first of four placements - which help lead to a number of qualifications including the PgDip in healthcare management and an NVQ Level 4 in management - is a three-month "orientation" which gives recruits an understanding of all aspects of the NHS service as they shadow a range of employees from chief executive to porter.

Placement three is another three-month elective stint during which trainees can work for another organisation of their choice, either in the UK or abroad. One trainee for example visited an orthopaedic specialist hospital in New York to study how patients undergoing joint replacement surgery can have a shorter stay in hospital.

Candidates need a minimum 2.2 degree in any subject, together with what recruiters call "personality and drive".

If long-term prospects and training and development opportunities have never been better in the health service, teaching, local government, the civil service or the armed forces, today's graduate is also firmly committed to having a life outside work.

While many private sector employers have found the demand among graduates for greater flexibility to be a tall order, the public sector has in many cases taken it on the chin. Flexible working hours, job-sharing and term-time only working are already well-established in the public sector - where women make up a large proportion of the workforce - as are childcare facilities and workplace-based crèches.

The still newer phenomenon of teleworking has also been swiftly adopted by local authorities and other public sector employers keen to keep female staff. Overall, 50 per cent of public sector employers now offer flexible working facilities, compared with 25 per cent in the private.

"Many young people have seen their parents and older siblings achieve a better balance between work and life and naturally, they want to emulate them," says Jayne Rowley. While many blue-chip firms, particularly in the more male-oriented sectors such as investment banking, are still firmly committed to the 70-hours-a-week working model, she says that this way of working is less attractive to today's younger entrant.

Although older staff accept that they will often be totally focused on their work to the detriment of their home life, the "work-obsessed" career model of the Eighties is not so attractive to today's graduate, who wants something rather different out of life, according to the Work Foundation.

While there is still a perception that the big bucks are only to be made inside privately run firms, poor pay is one more myth about public service that can finally be laid to rest. While the latest AGR (Association of Graduate Recruiters) salary survey suggests that the average starting salary for a UK graduate is £20,300, this is only slightly ahead of the average £19,900 paid to new graduates in the public sector.

After five years in the job, the position totally changes, according to Graduate Prospects, with average salaries in the public sector often some £3,000 higher. "The public sector tends to be more structured and has fixed pay scales that are uncommon in the private. That, added to an element of being rewarded for 'time served', can make a career in public service very well rewarded if you stick around," it says.

A more intriguing aspect of working in the public sector is the apparent lack of pay inequality among employees. Astonishingly, there is still a marked inequality of salary among male and female graduates entering the private sector, according to the latest statistics, with male graduates between the ages of 21 and 24 earning on average 14 per cent more than females.

Such gender inequality is virtually unknown in the public sector, where there is no discernible gap in earnings according to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Overall, there are far more female managers in the public sector than in the private sector.

While the Eighties were characterised by fierce privatisation programmes and a dislike of all things public, the opportunities for a rewarding job in what is still a vast employer in Britain have probably never been greater. A career that allows you to make a contribution to society while rewarding you with a good salary, sound training and development prospects and flexible working arrangements isn't too good to be true. It's probably in the public sector.

Karen Smith

Karen, 25 , is a graduate from Manchester Metropolitan University. She is an environmental health officer (EHO) with Manchester city council's pollution control section

Karen's job includes telling club and bar owners in the city centre to keep the noise down, a significant change of role from a few years back, when, as an environmental health student herself, Karen was an enthusiastic and regular clubber. She is concerned that the profession is failing to recruit sufficient people to environmental health degree and postgraduate courses, leading to a potential shortfall of EHOs in the future.

"The owners of pubs and clubs can be difficult to deal with, but, basically, my job is about implementing effective noise controls and the adequate management of premises. The Pollution Control section deals mainly with noise complaints and planning consultations, but also dust, odour and smoke problems. Our work consists of reactive visits, continuing investigations and programmed inspections.

"Noise complaints are often domestic and, when concerning loud music and barking dogs, a complainant will often be asked to keep a diary from which we can judge the problem. Officers also make use of noise monitoring equipment. You can often get involved in neighbour disputes, which can be quite frustrating, and we do try to solve most complaints informally. Complaints regarding commercial premises can be more fraught. If owners fail to cooperate, we can serve a formal notice, but court action can be a lengthy process.

"The positive points of my job are that I can manage my own workload, which is interesting and always changing."