Public sector recruitment: Going public

The public sector may not be immune to recession, but there are still plenty of jobs available across a range of areas, from the NHS to teaching, social care, the police and even HR.

Jobs for life, generous headcounts and above-inflation pay increases nowadays exist only in the memories of a handful of civil service and local government unions.

Yet the traditional migratory trickle of private sector staff to jobs in everything from teaching to the health service shows every sign of becoming a flood, partly because the Brown government has a long list of initiatives to implement in advance of the next general election.

The public sector, at least at local government level, can no longer claim to be immune to the economic squeeze. But recruitment agencies say Whitehall is continuing to hire and upskill, particularly for roles within Jobcentre Plus and the UK Border Agency. For many thrust abruptly into the job market, a public sector post still seems a relatively safe haven.


HR itself remains buoyant in the public sector, says Angela Newman, associate director of specialist public sector recruitment firm Morgan Law, with a track record in change management particularly sought after in these uncertain times.

“More than 50 CVs from HR professionals arrive on my desk every morning, around 70% of them from the private sector, particularly from HR generalists and talent managers who even a year ago wouldn’t have been nearly so keen on public sector work,” she says.

“Despite the fact that local government salaries are likely to be severely capped this year, the pay scales clearly aren’t putting people off,” she adds.


If modest pay increases and the burden of bureaucracy is no longer a deterrent to jobseekers, neither is the appetite for testing in our education system, says Graham Holley, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA).

“We have witnessed an unprecedented surge in enquiries about teaching since the beginning of the credit crunch, demonstrating a fast-growing appetite for this rewarding career,” he says.

“In these uncertain times, teaching is fulfilling, challenging and stable, and enables career changers to use the talents already honed in their current job – from communication and leadership skills to team management.”

On the face of it, then, jobseekers need look no further than their local town hall, school, or health service (where one-third of recruits are external) for their next challenge. But is it really that simple?

No, says Anthony Pierce, associate director of recruitment agency Hudson and a specialist in HR.


“Lots of people are making huge assumptions about the public sector experiencing a huge upturn, but this has not necessarily been the case in terms of all HR jobs,” he argues.

“Public sector employers are hugely excited by what they see as the wealth of talent now coming from the private sector, but there’s also resistance to taking these people on because of the likelihood they’ll desert just as soon as the recession is over.

“However, while some people may have lost their jobs because they weren’t very good at them, for very strong candidates with the right skills and experience, there are plenty of posts waiting to be filled.”

Culturally speaking, the ethos of a privately-run, entrepreneurial firm is entirely different to that experienced by a civil servant or NHS worker, where the ultimate boss is the government – or rather the taxpayer. Yet there are at least some public sector jobs where the nuts and bolts of the role may be more familiar.


Nick Shaw, a senior consultant with occupational psychology consultancy SHL, counts the Cabinet Office, Essex County Council and Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) among his clients. He believes that not all public sector jobs are equally enticing.

“The perceived greater job security in the public sector is still an attraction, as is the greater investment in career development at a time when learning budgets have been cut in many private firms, but this has to be set against bureaucracy and heavy unionisation,” suggests Shaw.

“While many of the more straightforward civil service roles may have limited appeal to someone more accustomed to the cut and thrust [of the private sector], it is the opportunity to make a mark in leadership and management roles that will entice many people into public service.”

Although technical skill was once enough to propel civil servants into leadership positions, the new thinking, says Shaw, is more about entrepreneurial flair and people management.


But he believes that managing the different expectations of those from an enterprise background may be tricky. “The Civil Service desperately wants good managers and leaders from the private sector, but to keep them, it will need to change its thinking,” he says.

If central government is continuing to expand while local government contracts, the pressure on councils to deliver better public service shows no sign of diminishing. The recruitment patterns of social care versus health illustrate the point.

Gillian Hibberd, corporate director for people and policy at Buckinghamshire County Council, says that in social work and social care, demand continues to outstrip supply.

“I’d say the net impact [in the public sector as a whole] is a reduction in jobs,” she says. “Unlike some recent headlines suggested, the public sector is not immune from the recession.

“But there are some critical core jobs where we’ll always need to bring people in. We always need to recruit children’s social workers; that’s a high priority for us. Care is probably the only big area recruiting at the moment, apart from teachers.”


Sian Thomas, acting joint director of NHS Employers, adds the country’s 1.3 million health workers – particularly IT, clerical, admin, management and mental health nursing – to the list.

“On average, around 20,000 to 30,000 NHS jobs are being posted each month, and so far the recession has had no discernible impact on those figures,” she says. “Inevitably, people are trying to find productivity gains, but the mission to deliver better training, enhanced skills and a better service remain high on the NHS agenda.”

“While the long-term trend is for fewer specialised hospital jobs and more community-based roles in and around GPs’ surgeries, I currently see no financial pressures preventing delivery of these services.”

Being fleet of foot is traditionally not a quality associated with public service, but for the tens of thousands of people in the Civil Service talent pool, moving from a post in, say, transport to something unrelated, such as immigration, is part and parcel of the job.

“The government has much to do before it goes up for election, and public sector staff are being asked to deliver more for less and with fewer people,” says Justin Spray, founder of occupational psychology firm Mendas, whose clients include the Department for Transport, the UK Border Agency, HM Revenue & Customs, the Home Office and the Prison Service.

“But while the unions want the grading structure adhered to closely – so that a Grade 3 position in one department can be interchanged with a Grade 3 post in another – many senior civil servants fear that this approach doesn’t necessarily enhance public service.


“In some quarters at least, there is a growing desire to bring fresh blood into government, but the pressure to favour internal over external candidates is still strong.”

In recent weeks, the impact of the recession on private sector workers has been highlighted, as has the assumption that those in public service are sitting pretty.

To Martin Tiplady, HR director at the Metropolitan Police, which is currently running recruitment campaigns for police community support officers (PCSOs), police officers and senior HR advisers, the assumption that times are less hard for public servants is wrong-headed.

“We’ve certainly taken a hit with the recession, both with reduced budgets and a 400-500 overall reduction in police staff (from 14,000), so I can’t agree that the public sector is somehow immune from the recession, particularly not given that I’ll be losing 330 people from HR alone over the coming six months,” he says.

“We’ve always been well served by people coming from the private sector, and although I can tell you that our campaign for senior HR advisers is eliciting a pretty lively response, there is no discernible trend in terms of who is applying.”

When it comes to the prospect of HR professionals finding new jobs, Morgan Law’s Newman is bullish, particularly for those with change or organisational development roles on their CV. But she adds a note of caution.

“Although things are starting to change and more jobs are opening up to outsiders, many of our clients do prefer public sector experience in a comparable role, particularly if it’s an interim assignment.”

Where the public sector jobs are:

  • Central government: Jobcentre Plus, UK Border Agency, management, leadership roles.
  • Local government: Social care, social work.
  • NHS: Mental health nursing, radiography, management, admin, clerical, IT.
  • Metropolitan Police: PCSOs, special constables, intelligence analysts, computing, senior HR advisers.
  • HR: Change management, interim management, organisational development, talent management, workforce planning, HR business partners/shared services.

Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) statistics

  • Between September and January, visits to the TDA website rose to 850,234, a rise of 45% on the previous year’s figure.
  • The proportion of career changers over 25 years old entering the profession has reached 46.7%, up from 41.6%.
  • One in 10 workers are considering a move to teaching, according to research conducted by ICM at the beginning of 2009.
  • Over the next two years, the TDA aims to recruit 6,600 science teachers and 5,320 new maths teachers into the profession. Maths and science are two of seven subjects with specific recruitment targets.

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