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This post is based on Sarah Jeffries’ MSc dissertation, which she completed at INLOGOV earlier this year.

Sarah Jeffries

Working in a University Careers Service you get to hear a lot of voices, particularly those of students and employers. The students are preparing themselves to enter the workforce, develop their careers, and have an impact within their chosen sector. Whilst having a discussion with one such student, the subject of his skills and working within the public sector arose; his response was: No, I want to work somewhere professional”, which he then identified as the private sector. 

That was a powerful statement, however it was by no means unique. There are often misconceptions about the types of skills currently being sought in the public sector (and that’s not limited to students), particularly those for graduate-entry roles and graduate recruitment programmes. This is also in addition to the ‘professionalism’ of public sector workers being called in to question.

The modernisation agenda and increasing comparisons with the perceived efficiencies of the private sector have also given rise to unfavourable judgements in comparison. Conversely, how are students with ‘public sector motivation’ perceiving the skills and understandings required from a role in the public sector? Are they developing the skills required for the changing public sector landscape?

The modernisation agenda has also brought an increase in public-private partnerships, and the reality is that many public service professionals work across sector boundaries. This is reflected in the skills being sought by public sector graduate recruiters, for example: the 2012 National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP) ‘Bright Future Report’ stated: “Increasingly councils need skills that have not been developed before, including commercial acumen and commissioning ability in order to deliver services through partners” (P.9). These are skills traditionally viewed as private-sector related.

Using Q-methodology, I researched how students constructed their view of a Public Service Professional to make sense of how we can best prepare students for the realities of public sector life, and the changing nature of the workforce.

Q-methodology allows the researcher to explore the concourse of debate surrounding a topic, and provides a mechanism to understand how an undergraduate student perceives representative statements, in relationship to each other. This provides an illuminating picture of how their reality is constructed.

The concourse in this area was broad with a need to capture a range of voices (media reports, social media, job descriptions, student discussion boards, literature review, and interviews with students, graduate and non-specific graduate recruiters (multiple sectors)), and it highlighted the conflicting messages being presented. These ranged from “seeking ambitious graduates” to “outdated”; from “popular graduate destination” to “huge job losses”; to “crossing sector boundaries in role” and “working in silos”.

Students completed a sorting exercise using statements that encompassed the range of debate, and participated in an accompanying interview. The results reveal seven different factors or viewpoints, reflecting the complexity of the changing working landscape.  These included polarised positive and negative perceptions of public sector professionals, in addition to idealistic and stereotyped interpretations that do not necessarily reflect reality. These findings highlight the potential difficulties in recruiting the best, and most prepared candidates for positions. The research recommended that further sector specific research be undertaken to increase the understanding for public sector recruiters. This is hopefully, where my application for a PhD comes in…

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Sarah Jeffries has just completed a part-time MSc in Public Management with INLOGOV. She works for the Careers Network at the University of Birmingham, managing the University’s optional employability programme: the Personal Skills Award. Sarah also chairs the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services’ Skills Award Task Group. Follow her on Twitter here.

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