Perceptions of the public sector mean young people are rarely interested in
being part of it. But as Sally O’Reilly finds out, some councils are now
targeting young recruits in a bid to throw off the old image
Working for local government is rarely seen as sexy. The old image of
faceless bureaucrats in grey suits lives on, and most graduates and school
leavers see it as a middle-aged profession with little to offer them in terms
of career progression or exciting challenges. So it’s no surprise the workforce
is ageing and, currently, only 6.5 per cent of local government workers are
under 25. And HR professionals have something of a problem when it comes to
selling local government as the career of choice to the next generation of
bright young things.
Andreas Ghosh, chair of the recruitment and retention of the Society of
Chief Personnel Officers (Socpo), and head of personnel and development at
Lewisham Borough Council says HR departments are having an impact, but there is
more work to be done.
"The shortage of young people in the public sector is connected to the
overall demographic change in the UK – the whole of the UK workforce is getting
older," he says. "We do need to attract young people into the sector,
and I think HR departments are doing a great job in areas such as offering
workplace placements to local schools. But we need to capitalise on this."
Young people need to see their local council as useful and relevant. Then
they will be more likely to think of working there, believes Martin Stein, senior
consultant with the Employers Organisation for Local Government.
Currently, few young people connect the services they use – schools, sports
centres and libraries for example – with the work of a council. "The
majority of jobs are not desk-based, but that’s how they are seen," says
Complacency about recruitment doesn’t help, and Stein says some councils
still think this will just look after itself. "It’s not just a matter of
getting bums on seats, we need to get the right people," he warns. To help
do this, the Employers’ Organisation has set up two websites which include
information about local government careers and current jobs advertised, and
last year launched the National Graduate Development Programme for Local
But Freda Line, employee relations and strategy manager with the Employers’
Forum on Age, says more work is needed.
"The public sector is not good at announcing what it has – flexible
working, career breaks, sabbaticals – all these things which were introduced
years ago, to howls of derision, and which the major blue-chip companies are
now imitating," she says.
Clarity is also needed about how to advertise to the young. "You have
to be encouraging and make the job sound interesting, not bland and dead-beat,"
Equally, employers have to be careful about targeting the younger worker as
they risk slipping into discriminatory habits if they don’t get this right, she
warns. "You must get the message across that you want a diverse age mix,
not that you are looking only for young workers."
But improving advertising is not enough. HR departments also need to cut
down on bureaucracy if they are to attract youthful candidates. "I have
seen application forms six pages long," says Line. "And job
descriptions often include unnecessary requirements – such as asking for two A
levels, or a driving licence, or two employer references."
One local authority already dealing with this issue is Bristol City Council,
which set up a New Deal programme in 1998. This scheme is now cited as a model
of best practice, and runs alongside its mainstream recruitment programme.
Around 100 staff have been taken on via this route, many of them under 25.
Vacancies are advertised in local job centres, and New Deal and inclusion co-ordinator
Ed Nall advises jobseekers about completing application forms and approaching
interviews. In some cases, application forms have been simplified and
requirements reduced to give more people access to a particular post.
"We’ve cut the experience needed for some posts – from three years to
one year, for example – and we’ve also reduced the number of GCSEs to two or an
equivalent," says Nall. "It is a difficult area in local government,
because employers and unions are concerned that it could affect the grading of
the job. But changing and being more flexible isn’t rocket science."
The bad news from the HR perspective is that Nall is not part of the HR team
– he works in the economic regeneration division. He did report to HR at one
time, but this became too constricting. "I do have good relations with the
HR department, but I had to be the driver," he says.
The next generation
Originally, the idea was that Nall would put new systems in place, then step
back and let personnel take over, but that didn’t happen. "The HR teams
are very busy, and see this as a bolt-on activity.
"They tend to have a very systematic approach to recruitment, and my
experience tells me it takes an awful lot of work to change that. But a lot has
been achieved, and this has been a positive, worthwhile initiative."
Clearly, getting graduate recruitment right is also an essential component
of any strategy to bring in the next generation of local authority talent.
Thirty three local authorities are now taking part in the National Graduate
Development Programme. A positive move for this minority, but with more than
400 local authorities in the country, most have yet to test out this scheme.
The programme involves each graduate spending two years with a local
authority, ideally working in strategic department, in a frontline role and in
a support function such as HR or IT. "The aim is to give them consistency
of experience, no matter how much each local authority might vary in size and
the way it functions," says Tim Hodey, a consultant on the programme.
Interest in the programme so far has been high – in the first year, almost
2,500 people applied for just 50 places. And the fact that 33 per cent of
graduates told a recent Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) survey that
they would apply to the public sector for their first graduate job is also
encouraging. However, graduates are more likely to favour a high profile job at
the civil service than to apply for a town hall role – this came only fifth in
their list of preferences.
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, says graduates often mistakenly
assume that pay will be far lower than for private sector jobs – again, the
dowdy image of the sector persists. This is actually not the case.
"Surveys of jobs in 2002 – 2003 showed that the average national
graduate starting salary was £19,500, while the average public sector graduate
starting salary was £18,007 – higher than retail, engineering, construction and
the media," Gilleard points out.
So authorities still need to do some myth-busting here, and show that there
are glittering careers in the sector. "We do have to stress where their
careers can lead," he says. "Most CEOs of local authorities now earn
£100,000 or more, so the opportunities for high flying management careers are
Shifting perceptions of local authority jobs through advertising can work,
as recruitment consultancy Bartlett Scott Edgar and Essex County Council have
found. Last year Essex hired the consultancy to help recruit good candidates
for its CIPFA training programme, which takes on graduates who will then gain a
public finance accountancy qualification.
"They hadn’t really marketed this properly: they put an ad in the local
paper, but it was very conventional and they were regurgitating the same thing
year after year," says Mike Burgneay group account director at Bartlett
Scott Edgar. "But then HR took the lead and persuaded management to do
something more marketing-led."
The result was a campaign which went back to first principles and took fresh
look at what the accountancy traineeship could offer ambitious graduates. Press
and online advertising was overhauled, as was the application form itself.
The slogan was ‘It’s crunch time’, and strong visual images were used both
in press adverts and the micro site which the consultancy set up to give
applicants more information about the posts. This site included a range of
profiles of people who had done the qualification in the past and gone on to
develop their careers. Crucially, not all of them were still working for the
"Two had gone off to work elsewhere: one with PricewaterhouseCoopers
and the other as head of finance at Essex Police," says Burgneay.
"This showed there were lots of potential careers for people who took this
qualification." The result was overwhelming – and when Bartlett Scott
Edgar reactivated the site at the end of 2002 to say that more recruits would
be taken on this year, 45 people signed up for more information.
For Martin Stein of the Employers Organisation for Local Government, letting
recruits know that their future may lie outside the organisation goes to the
nub of the issue. If you are going to attract younger workers – whether
graduates or school leavers – you have to fire their imagination and show where
their career might go.
"On our websites we have various case studies of people working for the
first few years of their career with a local authority, and then moving on to
other roles," he says. "It shows this is not a ‘safe’ career choice, or
a job for life."
And the more integrated the approach, the higher the chances of success.
"When work to include young people in service delivery is carried out,
then young people are more likely to want to work for a local authority,"
he stresses. "You have to engage with them first."
Top tips for recruiting young talent
– Publicise services that young
people use – such as sports facilities
– Make links with local schools and offer work experience
– Spice up job ads and ditch the jargon
– Don’t discriminate against older workers
– Simplify application forms and reduce minimum job requirements
– Join the National Graduate Development Programme
– Tackle myths: pay levels compare well with retail,
construction and the media
– Show that town halls are a spring board to a wide range of
– Use on-line advertising, and make it relevant, snappy and
Nottinghamshire County Council
More than 23,000 people work for the
council, almost half of them in schools. And around 4.2 per cent are under 25.
For the past five years, the council has been working to boost this percentage,
launching a Bridge to Work scheme in 1997 with Jobcentre Plus, originally
targeting New Deal 18-24 year olds. The aim was to help unemployed people get
jobs with the council – and develop their careers once they were in place.
"A number of factors were preventing young people getting jobs with the
council, including unrealistic and unnecessary job specifications, such as a
minimum number of years’ experience, GCSEs or typing skills," says Paul
Roberts, head of labour market services.
To help this process, the council appointed a New Deal
employment manager, who made a number of changes – such as cutting job
requirements, simplifying application forms and looking for job applicants
without paper qualifications, but who did have potential. Applicants were also
given interview training and help with form filling, and work trials could also
be offered if applicants didn’t come across well in interview. Targeting New Deal clients interested in
council jobs is a key part of the scheme. Those who express an interest are
entered into a New Deal database and sent flyers and updates about job
vacancies. The council has also looked at skills shortage areas and provided
New Deal trainee posts to address these shortages.
It’s obviously not enough to bring in young people with the
right potential – they will soon leave if they aren’t given enough training and
support. With this in mind, the council has taken a systematic approach to
developing young recruits who come in via this route. "Our New Deal
employment manager works with line managers to develop structured induction and
training programmes, and we review progress with both the individuals and their
line managers," says Roberts. "We will also pay for off the job
training if they need it."
So far, 82 people have been recruited into permanent council
posts through this scheme, with 66 per cent aged between 18 and 24. But Roberts
stresses that the council is not relying on this scheme alone. "We
regularly receive school parties to show them how local government works, what
our responsibilities are and the kinds of jobs and careers we offer," he
Nottinghamshire has just signed an agreement with the Government
which has set a target of employing 200 New Deal recruits in public sector
posts across the county over the next three years. To this end, the council has
established a partnership with seven district and borough councils in the area,
and also aims to work with Nottinghamshire-based offices of all the main
"The young people recruited have bought a great deal of
commitment and enthusiasm to the authority, we would like to share our
achievements and convince other employers that using New Deal is a sound HR
approach to recruitment," says Roberts.
For more information
Employers Forum on Age – 020 8765 7596
Association of Graduate Recruiters – 01926 623 236
Employers Organisation for Local Government – 0207 296 678
Employers Organisation careers
Employers Organisation jobs
Bartlett Scott Edgar – 020 7562 5700