Public sector organisations consist of the national government, local governments, government-owned or controlled corporations and government monetary institutions. It is a part of the economy concerned with providing basic government services. The composition of the public sector varies by country, but in the UK the public sector includes such services as the police, military, public transport, welfare, Education and healthcare as well as many other diverse roles.
For over two decades the public sector suffered adverse comparisons with private business. Now with the governments extensive investment programme and changing attitudes the public sector offers many varied career opportunities in different working environments and represents a very popular and competitive choice among graduate applicants.
The public sector has put a lot of effort into being more attractive to graduates in recent years, and now it's reaping the rewards. More graduates surveyed in national opinion polls have said they would rather work in the public sector than for a blue chip company. The main attraction of the public sector is the desire to make a difference to people's lives, but in the past year or so there has been a significant emphasis on pay/working conditions and better pensions in the public sector. There has been pay restructuring in the health service and education and limits are being placed on working hours. State employees have benefited from pay rises ahead of the private sector and the gap between average starting salaries in the two sectors is disappearing.
Devolution has changed the way the public sector works in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The government now has plans to devolve English government along regional lines.
The public sector offers opportunities across the country, with councils often being the largest single employer in an area, and working for central government does not mean necessarily mean working in London.
The connection between government and London remains fixed in people’s minds even in the era of devolution, but it would be wrong to imagine that working for an arm of government means heading for the UK’s capital. Even a large majority of civil servants, who are the staff most directly part of central government, are not located in London. Scores of government agencies and departments are scattered across Britain, from the Met Office in Exeter to the Forestry Commission in Edinburgh, while the biggest departments tend to have offices in both London and the regions. Then there are the many locally organised services such as health, the emergency services and the various functions of local government.
Public sector jobs are a crucial component of local economies to the extent in Wales of providing more than half of the work for graduates aged under 40; Northern Ireland, Yorkshire and Humberside and North-East England are not far behind. So for students who want to stay near their local roots or where they attended university, the public sector is worth a look.
Staying local does not have to mean opting for uncompetitive pay and conditions. The rewards for public servants in the regions often measure up well against the local cost of living and accommodation and what the private sector is offering, contradicting the usual London-based perceptions that public service involves economic sacrifice.
Measures of devolution instituted by the present government are bringing decision-making nearer to where the work is going on. Scotland gained a Parliament and Wales an Assembly in 1999. Now the English regions are being offered their own version. These developments parallel the transformation of cities like Liverpool and Leeds to become attractive alternatives to London as places to work in.
Graduates can apply to what is known as the "Fast Stream". This a method of entry into most of the central government departments and it represents the highest level of applications and also has the quickest promotion rate. The application process is highly competitive, in 2010 there were 500 vacancies for 13,500 applicants.
Graduate Civil Servants are responsible for formulating and implementing policy, investigating the effect of changes in legislation, overseeing major public projects and managing resources. The Civil Service's work is carried out through a large number of government departments and executive agencies. Broadly speaking, the departments are primarily responsibile for devising policy and checking it is implemented. Agencies actually carry out the policies, such as assessing claims and paying out benefits, running the Crown Courts or administering overseas aid and development programmes. There are over 60 departments and over 130 agencies, with the agencies alone employing well over 300,000 staff.
The work of the Diplomatic Service is to represent the United Kingdom's interests in international affairs, both political and economics. Diplomats represent the British Government in countries across the world and are required to assist ministers with foreign policy. A new recruit will spend the first couple of years in London doing a specific job, e.g. as a desk officer for a particular overseas country, as well as undergoing induction and other training, perhaps intensive language learning, followed by a first overseas posting.
Other public sector roles include customs and excise officers, clerks, environmental health officers, statisticians and tax officers. Popular destinations include the Houses of Parliament, Security Services (e.g. MI5) and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters).
Given the range of jobs available, the number of potential careers paths is immense, including managerial positions at all levels within departments. The government is implementing reforms to key services that involve national standards, devolution to the front line and greater choice. Jobs in management have a particular importance in this process and involve many challenges. Some job roles can be prestigious with an enormous amount of responsibility early on. The sector is widely respected and many graduates do deicide to move in to private sector at a later stage in their career, often taking up senior and very well-paid management and executive positions.
The great thing about working for the public sector is that you really could do anything. Local government organisations recruit graduates into all sorts of occupations, including accountancy, architecture, media and communications, surveying and many others. Particular shortage areas include trading standards, environmental health, IT and social work. And local authorities are modernising, which means people don't stay in the same job for 30 years anymore as there are career changing opportunities throughout your working life. You might also have the opportunity to study for professional career development qualifications too. Whatever career path you're considering, the public sector definitely has something to offer.
Qualifications and skills needed
Although the public sector is improving, there is still a skills shortage across the industry - more than half of public sector organisations say there aren't enough suitably-skilled candidates. The attributes they need from graduate applicants aren't unusual - public sector organisations are run in a very similar way to their private sector counterparts, so they too look for evidence of leadership, management, technical and communication skills. They exist to provide services to their communities, so people skills, such as communication and customer service are obviously highly relevant. Equally, managing budgets running into millions of pounds requires business skills such as procurement and contract management.
The type of qualifications needed will depend on the sort of job you are after. Generally a good 2:2 honours degree will be enough and with strong communication skills and any language skills would be advantage. To apply for specific posts in science, engineering, mathematical or finance then a relevant degree will be needed together with the required A levels or UCAS points desired. In other areas a willingness to travel and work overseas plus an interest in world affairs and the ability to interpret complex data are important.
Some of the selection procedures involved place a heavy emphasis on personal attributes such as behaviour and self motivation, as well as looking for excellent interpersonal and time management skills.
Graduates looking for work in the public sector should be prepared to consider and apply for positions at lower entry levels, often as 'casuals' or on temporary contracts, as administrative or office assistants. Such experience may help in the development of skills relevant to appointments at managerial level and promotion is possible but graduates should not assume that progress from this level is automatic. Promotion opportunities, particularly in the Civil Service, are decided on merit.