· Features

A good time to go public

Put aside your prejudices about the public sector and grab the increasingly sophisticated job opportunities. Theres a need for fresh blood and new HR skills. Stefan Stern reports

With the Government concentrating on the delivery of public services, perhaps it is time to think more seriously about that move into the public sector. After all, there are some senior jobs to be had there. Recruitment is outstripping the private sector, and pay is finally catching up too.

As Joan Munro, assistant director (people, skills and development) at the Employers Organisation for local government, says, People are recognising that a higher level of skills is required, particularly in the top jobs. Pay is going up to reflect this. Some very interesting and very important HR jobs are being created, in the area of organisational development, for example.

The simple label public sector covers an extremely wide range of organisations. There is no such thing as an identikit public-sector job, just as few private-sector companies are completely alike.

Public services are now being delivered by many different types of bodies, including charities and the not-for-profit sector, says Mary Tetlow, director of the Public Management Foundation. And the rate of change is very fast. In the NHS, for example, roles and structures are changing all the time. You shouldnt presume that public-sector jobs are going to be predictable, she says.

Louise Horner, a researcher at the Work Foundation (formerly the Industrial Society), confirms that some of the private sectors prejudices may be justified, while others may not be. Accountability is perhaps the biggest difference, she says. In the public sector you will be answerable to politicians and work in partnership with local bodies. The pace of decision making may not always be as fast as youre used to. Inevitably there may be more bureaucracy.

There is much more likely to be a trade union presence, and you may find that in areas like project management the skills and approaches are different, adds Horner. But Tetlow is keen to point out how demanding public-sector jobs can be, and also how rewarding. There is a very high level of government inspection, target-setting, and constant pressure to prove that you are improving public services, working for the community, she says. There is huge culture change going on. And in the era of corporate social responsibility, it is satisfying to be in a job where you are making a positive difference to real problems.

Munro agrees. It is not a nice easy number going into the public sector. These are very complicated, sophisticated jobs. But they are also much more interesting than a lot of private-sector jobs. We do need new blood, we need HR skills in motivating workforces and bringing about change, taking people with you.

Local government, to name but one sector, is facing a recruitment crisis: 30% of its workforce will retire within the next 15 years and without new recruits in areas such as social work and environmental health, there are fears that essential services could grind to a halt.

And yet local government remains the biggest overall employer in the country. There are some very significant roles out there to be filled, with salaries to match. It is worth thinking about.

What to bear in mind

  • Not all public sector jobs are the same. Look around

  • Get ready for a dramatic culture change, both personally and professionally; your colleagues will think differently and be motivated differently

  • Dont presume you know it all and public-sector managers know nothing

  • Learn to live with a new regime of accountability and measurement

  • Your new role will be stretching and varied

  • You may find breaking free from the profit motive and competitive markets surprisingly pleasant and inspiring