Public sector

There are a huge range of roles and organisations within the Public Sector, all working to improve society for us all. You could be doing anything from fighting fires to saving lives. Read on to find out how to apply, what experience you need and the skills you should be developing…

1

What is the Public Sector?

The Public Sector is, quite literally, the backbone of society. Often referred to as just ‘the Government’, the Public Sector is everything that is managed and organised by the state – not just the government’s political arm, but our health service, judiciary and education system as well.

Far from being one homogeneous organisation, the Public Sector is incredibly broad and varied, and can lead to many different career paths.

The Public Sector accounts for a sizeable chunk of the UK workforce too – over a sixth of workers are employed in the industry, totalling 5.4 million people. However, public sector jobs have been falling year on year since the 2008 financial crash as the government make cuts to save money, and there are now substantially fewer jobs than there were ten years ago. But there are also big skills gaps in the sector and in certain areas there are shortages, so there are still plenty of opportunities for graduate employment.

Over a sixth of workers are employed in the industry, totalling 5.4 million people

The sector can be split into two main strands – central and local government. Local government has faced the most significant cuts and now accounts for 2.18 million jobs, while central government (the Civil Service) employs 2.95 million people.

Beyond this, there are a number of other big employers in the Public Sector (all still under the control of government). These include the likes of the army, the BBC, the NHS, the Office for National Statistics, the Bank of England, the National Audit Office and the National Probation service.

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Job roles

There are a huge number of different roles within the public sector, and the skills and qualifications they require vary widely. We’ve broken down the main public sector workplaces and the types of roles they employ:

    • You could work as a teacher, classroom assistant, youth worker or librarian, helping to educate the leaders of the future in the thousands of state schools around the country. You don’t necessarily need a degree to become a teacher, but you will need a place on an Initial Teacher Training programme to gain the qualifications you need.

    • In social services you’ll be working to help the most vulnerable in society such as the elderly, young people or those with disabilities. You could be a social worker, occupational therapist or physiotherapist, for example. To become a Social Worker you’ll need a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work.

    • You could get a job in one of the thousands of colleges and universities in the country, either as a lecturer or academic, or as support staff in areas ranging from finances, IT and marketing. To become a university lecturer, you’ll need at least a 2:1 in your undergraduate degree, and in almost all subject areas, a PhD.

    • To become a Police Officer, you don’t necessarily need a degree, but you will need A-level qualifications or extensive experience as a Police Community Support Officer. However, Police Now offer a fast-track graduate programme, where you’ll spend two years working in a challenging community following a brief (but intense) training period.

    • The emergency services encompasses a range of roles, including firefighters. You often don’t need any specific educational qualifications for these, but you will need to pass a series of written and physical tests.

    • The government carries out extensive work to protect the UK’s environment and infrastructure. You could be working in conservation or highway maintenance.

    • A surprising amount of leisure facilities are under the control of the public sector, including leisure centres, museums, art galleries and tourist information centres.

    • One of the biggest public sector employers (with 1.59 million people working for the organisation), the NHS has a huge range of roles. From doctors, nurses, midwives and paramedics to clerical and administrative staff, it’s a mammoth operation. For most medical roles you’ll need to take the relevant degree at university in order to qualify.

    • You don’t need a degree to join the armed forces; the recruitment process requires you to pass a series of stages including a fitness test, aptitude tests and an interview. If you would like to join as an officer, which is a managerial role, you’ll need some good A-levels.

    • The Civil Service is the permanent bureaucracy of the government. It’s non-political, meaning that as governments come and go, it stays the same, and it’s the job of civil servants to implement the policies and laws established by the government. You’ll need a place on the Civil Service fast stream, which recruits around 900 a year and you’ll need a 2:2 or 2:1 at degree level, sometimes in a specific subject depending on the role.

    • Although you might think you need a degree from Oxbridge to become a politician, anyone can rise through the ranks with hard work, dedication and charisma. You don’t necessarily need a degree (although it can help), but joining a political party, working and learning from established MPs, becoming selected for a parliamentary seat and (hopefully) getting elected, is the usual way to go about becoming a politician.

    • Just like working in the Civil Service, but at local government level, you’ll be responsible for implementing the decisions made by councillors. You’ll need at least a 2:2 in your degree to get on the National Graduate Development Programme, a two-year fast track programme.

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Qualifications

As I’m sure you can see, there is no hard and fast rule for what qualifications you’ll need for a career in the public sector. If you want to become a doctor, there’s no escaping the fact you’ll need a medical degree, but for other roles, such as a Civil Servant position, there most often isn’t a specific degree prerequisite. For some roles you don’t need a degree at all.

There often isn’t a specific degree prerequisite

Certain degree subjects, such as social sciences like politics and sociology, are particularly favoured in the industry, but are by no means the only degree subjects accepted. Also be aware that for many positions you’ll need to take specific oral, written or physical examinations to qualify, so bear this in mind when applying.

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Skills you need

    • Working as part of the public sector you’ll be dedicating your time to improving society and ultimately improving people’s lives. The public sector is largely funded by tax payer’s money, so it’s important you care about the public and you’re passionate about making the country a better place. You need to keep up with political events, and be aware of the issues affecting your industry.

    • You need to be able to take on different tasks, possibly outside of the immediate realm of your own work, when the need arises. When problems crop up you need to adapt to the situation, and think on your feet to offer solutions.

    • The organisations that make up the Public Sector are massive, so whatever role you’re in, you’re going to need some solid organisational skills to keep on top of your workload and navigate effectively within the different teams and departments you’ll be working alongside.

    • On that note, you’ll need to be able to work effectively as part of a team. This is no solitary job; you’ll be working in an office alongside many colleagues – so you need to be able to communicate effectively and use each other’s strengths to achieve the best possible result.

    • Just like all industries, the public sector is constantly evolving and adapting to incorporate the latest technologies for extra efficiency, so you’ll need to be able to keep up and use this technology effectively.

    • This doesn’t apply to all roles, but a lot of jobs in the public sector often require understanding and analysing large quantities of data to track results and improve performance.

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Industry Insights

The Public Sector is often at the heart of political debate, being under the direct control of the current government. In recent years, with the 2008 financial crash and recession, jobs in the public sector have been cut and funding reduced. This has led to heavier workloads and more challenging work environments for those who remain in employment.

The Public Sector pay gap is often in the news; the government had capped Public Sector salary pay rises at 1%, but following the threat of widespread strike actions from various groups, these restrictions were relaxed. However discontent remains, and the government still faces pressure to introduce pay rises.

Jobs in the public sector have been cut and funding reduced

There are also major skills shortages in the Public Sector, particularly in IT and technology as those with these skills often seek higher salaries in the private sector, so this is another major challenge the sector is working to address.

Another factor affecting the sector is the increased outsourcing of services to private companies. For example, the government outsources much of its security provision to G4S, including security in prisons and detention centres. This again has, in turn, led to a decrease in available jobs in the public sector.  

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Work experience

Getting work experience in the Public Sector can be tricky. Unlike private organisations who make their own rules, government organisations must abide by overarching policy, which means they can’t take on work experience students on an ad hoc basis.

There are some formal schemes in place, such as structured internships or year-long sandwich placements, and although they’re quite competitive, they’re definitely worth applying for. Organisations such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and GCHQ organise these, so do your research and you never know what you might find.

For other organisations, such as the NHS and fire service, it is obviously much harder to get work experience without being a trainee, but there are opportunities to get involved with related volunteering programmes.

Volunteering with St John’s Ambulance or Teddy Bear Hospital is a great way to get experience which will stand you in good stead for a career in the health service, and there are various other political, campaigning and volunteering groups at university which provide useful experience for those wanting to get into other areas.  

There’s also the Summer Diversity Internship Programme with the Civil Service which is aimed at disadvantaged, disabled and ethnic minority students and graduates. There’s also the similar week-long Early Diversity Internship Programme aimed at first-year students.  

Check out your local council as well, as they often run volunteering schemes for people wanting to get involved. Or look out for part-time jobs in the sector which you can do alongside your studies.

There are myriad ways of gaining the work experience you need, so don’t be disheartened if you don’t get on the exact work experience scheme you want.

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Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Social value - You’ll be working to make the country a better place for the general public.Multiple stakeholders - You’re often trying to please multiple people at once which can be tricky to navigate.
Team spirit - You’ll be placed within a team of people all working together to achieve a common goal.Salaries - Annual pay is typically lower than in the private sector.
Career growth opportunities - There’s lots of potential for career development and moving between different roles (and countries).Job security - This isn’t always guaranteed.
More flexible working conditions and friendly work atmosphere. Strict applications - Some organisations enforce strict nationality entry requirements.
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