Getting into the Public Sector

Thinking of entering the Public Sector? Our Careers Consultant, Marah Gardner, offers her advice on how to get in to this highly competitive sector!


What is it?

The public sector consists of local, national and international government. It includes employers as small as rural parish councils and as large as the European Parliament.  These organisations create and implement policies and laws and provide public services such as environmental safety and planning, housing, leisure, social care, education, transport and health.

You will have heard about cutbacks in recent years in public sector jobs but it is still a huge sector offering many varied opportunities. There are 433 local authorities in the UK and Leeds City Council for example, is steadily increasing its graduate training programme year on year. The Civil Service has hundreds of departments relating to all aspects of national government policy and employs around 453,000 people in total, with 75% outside London and the south east. There are also jobs connected with political organisations such as trade unions, think tanks, working for MPs or being an elected politician, which although not always strictly public sector, may be relevant if you are do not want to work in the corporate world.

However, the division between public, private and third sector has become increasingly blurred. Civil Service departments often contract out work to private companies, for example in the Prison Service, and many local councils work in partnership with charities and private sector employers.

What are the jobs?

Job roles in the public sector are varied:

  • Jobs involving direct contact with the public such as housing officers, social workers and teachers.
  • Technical experts such as engineers, architects, environmental advisers, IT professionals.
  • ‘Behind the scenes’ roles in administration, human resources, events organising and researching and writing policy.
  • Business functions usually associated with the private sector but equally important for the public sector, such as marketing, project management, finance and accountancy.

In fact just about any job can be found in the public sector. It is sometimes seen as very different from working for private companies but in reality, you need similar graduate skills and a certain amount of commercial awareness for management level jobs.

What to consider

What is your motivation for working in the public sector? It should not be seen as an easier option than working for private companies. The graduate programmes such as the National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP) which recruits for around 80 local authorities and the Civil Service Fast Stream (CSFS) are very competitive.

Getting in

Look for the graduate programmes advertised on our vacancies system and the websites below. The closing dates may be as early as November so don’t delay in applying! Other opportunities may be advertised later in the year e.g. Leeds City Council recruits again in summer 2014.

There are also lower level jobs as a way in (e.g. admin, project assistant or public facing roles). In reality many of the jobs which ask for a minimum of GCSEs are filled by graduates. Equality is part of the public sector ethos so jobs will be open to people with experience as well as graduates, which is why the bar appears to be set low. There are plenty of interesting and challenging jobs that don’t have the word ‘graduate’ in the title. It is certainly possible to start a little lower and work your way up.

For specialist roles, such as teaching or social work, further training will be needed, usually via postgraduate study, although there is a move towards paid work-based training.

What will help you stand out?

  • For graduate management programmes – evidence of commitment to public affairs such as volunteering with your local MP or being a school governor (always in short supply), belonging to ‘Leeds Citizens Panel’ and keeping up to date with current affairs.
  • If you apply directly from your degree, relevant experience from vacation or part-time work or internships.
  • You don’t need to feel that it’s ‘now or never’ – many graduates do some other kind of work before entering the NGDP or Fast Stream. NB It is usually easier to move from the private to the public sector than vice versa.
  • Attend employer events organised by the Careers Centre. Many public sector employers visit the University and it is an ideal way for you to find out more.

Skills & qualities required

The wide variety of jobs in the public sector makes it difficult to generalise but for the graduate management programmes you need to show:

  • A desire for public service balanced by some business awareness. You don’t need to be a maths expert but if you go into management training, you will be handling budgets. You will take verbal and numerical tests as part of the assessment for the Civil Service. If there are not tests, you still need to be able to understand basic statistical and financial information to complete assessment centre exercises.
  •  Initiative – public sector employers are keen to recruit people with ideas; the  old fashioned image of ‘pen pushers’ in a cushy job has gone.
  • Ability to understand and analyse large amounts of information; to articulate ideas clearly, in writing and verbally; and social media expertise.
  • Interpersonal and communication skills to build relationships and work in partnerships.

Further Resources


As a first step in researching potential careers it can be useful to begin online, please see the links below:

Use these sites to research the public sector and keep up to date with it’s current affairs:

For general careers advice within this sector:

Job descriptions
For more comprehensive job descriptions of the roles within the Public Sector:

Recruitment sites
There are lots of sites that advertise vacancies in the public sector, these include:

There are also several useful blogs that relate to public sector employment:

Careers Centre 

  • Information room – Section L1 in the occupational information section of our careers information room 
  • Drop In Service – Drop in any time Monday-Friday 9am-4pm for more advice and information as well as help with applications, interviews and assessment centres.

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