What is a career in the public sector and government like?
The public sector is one of the most diverse areas you can work in. Why? Because it covers the laws, policies and services that provide for the public and shape the way we all live, from maintaining our roads to overseeing our school curriculum.
Public sector careers can involve creating or changing policies and laws from central government, but it also takes a huge amount of people working at local level to decide how money is spent and make sure everyone gets the support they need.
Many of our most crucial jobs are provided for by the public sector, from the NHS to the police. So whether you want to be a nurse or doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, a leader, a scientist or to protect people in need, there may be a career in the public sector that suits you.
What public sector and government jobs can I do?
There are too many to list here, but we’ll try!
The NHS, the police force, state schools, libraries, social care services, social services, the fire service, roads, bin collections, parks and many leisure centres, the courts and prisons, MI5 and the armed forces are all public sector organisations and services. To find out more about specific jobs in these areas, check out our career zones for: Law, Armed Forces, Education, Police, Emergencies & Security (coming soon) and Healthcare.
Here are some of the main jobs at the heart of the public sector:
Members of Parliament (MPs)
Elected to represent their local area in parliament. They spend time working in their constituencies at home as well as at the House of Commons in London. MPs can propose new laws, put forward questions for debate and, if they are members of the ruling party, they can become government ministers and take charge of a main service area like Education or Health. Councillors do a similar job at local government level. MPs and councillors usually represent a political party, although they can stand "independently" - that is, on their own without any connection to a party.
Support government ministries to develop and deliver on their policies and provide services in a huge range of areas. Civil servants are politically neutral and aren’t elected like MPs, so when the government changes, they don’t automatically move jobs.
Depending on their skills, civil servants can perform social, economic, scientific and policy research, advise ministers, recruit staff, develop projects, communicate with the press, budget and distribute money. They can be found everywhere from Downing Street to the European Parliament. Diplomats are civil servants who represent the British government in foreign countries on issues like trade and protecting British citizens abroad.
Advisors and assistants help to brief MPs and support them in a range of tasks from research to speech writing, talking to constituents and setting up interviews with the media. It’s a good way to get an overview of the range of political jobs available in central government.
Like civil servants, local government officers and administrators help to deliver policies and services locally in education, health, transport, town planning and more. There are lots of local government jobs based in the community too including librarians, environmental health officers, caretakers, coastguards and refuse collectors.
Social workers work within their local authority to support vulnerable children and adults. They can oversee children being taken in to care, fostered or adopted and work with families and individuals to help them improve their relationships, care for children and achieve long-term independence.
Non Departmental Public Bodies (catchy!) like Ofsted (those nice folk who inspect our schools) are independent organisations but report to and are usually funded by the government. These act a lot like government departments and contain many of the same types of jobs as the civil service. The main difference is that they are impartial, meaning that they are able to scrutinise government policy and set the standards by which we judge our services, or provide neutral support.
Is a career in public sector and government for me?
If you want to make a difference in your community or the country, help shape the way things are run, support local services like libraries, or passionate about social issues, a role in local or central government could be for you.
It’s important to be organise, analytical and have strong research skills, as you may find yourself dealing with budgets or working with research data in lots of different roles. You’ll also be regularly working with confidential information so the ability to follow instructions carefully and keep things secure is a must.
You’ll need to have good communication skills too as many public sector jobs involve handling questions and concerns from the public as well as negotiating for funds and arguing for change.
You’ll also need to be calm under pressure as serious situations can crop up at any time. For example, when the country is faced with floods, different parts of the public sector have to work together and spring into action fast.
Public sector jobs can be found all over the country so there will be opportunities to gain work experience as a student in this area wherever you are based.
How can I start a career in public sector and government?
You don’t need a degree to work in the public sector and there are lots of jobs available for people with different qualifications.
Technically, you don’t need any qualifications to become an MP or a councillor but political experience is crucial. You If you have worked for a trade union, worked in the public sector or campaigned for your chosen party, this can give you an edge.
There are plenty of public sector jobs you can do straight from school. For example, you could work for your local library or join your county or district/city council in one of their departments - such as planning, council tax or customer service. Apprenticeship schemes and other on-the-job are available in many skilled jobs, such as nursery nurse, health visitor and even nursing, which used to require a degree.
Some roles do require a university degree. Traditionally, you had to be a graduate to become a civil servant, and the "Fast Stream" graduate scheme is still a main way the civil service recruits young people. But these days, the civil service also offers apprenticeships in all sorts of exciting areas including policy, so you can join straight after your A-levels. You also need a degree to become a social worker.
For certain jobs, the subjects you’ll need to study depend on the area you might want to go into. For example, if you’re interested in becoming a diplomat, a languages degree could be very useful.
Many public sector jobs involve working closely with colleagues and the public, so having some customer service experience will come in useful too whatever the role.
A quick guide to routes into the public sector
Vocational / School leaver
Civil service admin roles, local government jobs like refuse collector, library assistant, caretaker. Civil service admin assistants will need at least two (and normally five) GCSEs including Maths and English.
The civil service runs a fast track apprenticeship scheme each year for young people aged 18-21 with at least 5 GCSEs, which gives you the chance to train for managerial roles. Find out more in Useful Links.
Civil Service fast stream, economist, researcher. Many MPs will recruit graduates or postgraduates as assistants. Social workers will need a degree or post-grad qualification in social work. Civil servants have a range of degrees, but qualifications in Economics, Business, Modern Languages, Sciences and English can be useful for a range of roles.
If you think politics might be your thing, get involved in the Youth Parliament or similar organisations to get a feel for debate and campaigning.
Also, figure out what you believe in and join a political party!
What public sector and government qualifications are available?
There are plenty of opportunities to progress into senior management positions. Public sector workers may also have the chance to gain qualifications in project management, business or a specialist areas as well as core skills in IT.
If you do an apprenticeship or train on the job, you'll often gain a level 3 (equivalent to 2 A-levels) or level 4 (equivalent to a foundation degree) qualification in your chosen specialism. There are literally dozens of vocational qualifications to help back up your experience in virtually every job role, and you will usually get the opportunity to work towards qualifications even if you don't do an apprenticeship.
You may well build on this later in your career, particularly if you rise through the ranks over your career, and you could even end up with a degree.
Did you know these public sector and government facts?
Colossus, one of the earliest digital electronic computers, was developed by civil servants at Bletchley Park during World War II. Computers used to have the best names…
A bell is rung in parliament to let MPs known when it is time to vote. Once they hear the sound, they have 8 minutes to get to the chamber to vote.
Are you considering a career in the Public Sector & Government? If so, why not check out our list of UK universities to see which courses would suit you best.