Public Sector Jobs: Students’ Perceptions vs Reality

by | May 11, 2023 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

Our SALC employability champion, Chloe Gordon, interviewed two prominent public sector and policy workers to see how expectations of public sector work compare with reality. 

Many of us may think we want to work in the public sector, but what does that actually mean? When interviewing SALC students, I came across a lot of discrepancies in what people thought public sector jobs involved. Therefore, I set about trying to establish the reality by interviewing alumni who have worked in the public sector. As in many sectors, roles vary and no two jobs are the same, but I hope this post can be used as an insight into what working in the public sector might look like.

I interviewed Olivia O’Connell, the Community Funding Manager for Lancashire County Council’s Culture and Sport Fund, and Alex Veitch, the Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the British Chamber of Commerce (although not a public sector job, I could still gather insight into policy jobs). In this blog post, I will compare their answers to those of my fellow SALC students to try and shine a light on what careers in the public sector might look like once we graduate.

The working week day-to-day

What does an average working day look like? Are there set working hours or is it flexible? Do you go into an office or work online? All of these questions had mixed responses from students. Some thought the working hours would be long, with no set end time and work creeping into the weekends, but others expected a 9-5 to be the norm. As it turns out, both answers have some truth to them. Olivia said her working hours could be flexible, meaning you could finish early and pick up those hours by starting earlier the next day. This meant she could fit work around her life, but she did warn me that strong boundaries are essential. People try and contact her about work at all times, and she has to stick to her own schedule and make sure she does not work all the time. By contrast, Alex said he works a 9-5 and rarely works over the weekends. However, he too said this was because he has boundaries set in place and if he did not people would try and contact him out of his working hours. Both Olivia and Alex said they work in a hybrid style with online work at home and time spent in an office. In either setting contact with a team was vital – Olivia talks to her Line Manager multiple times a day even when she is working at home. The main source of interaction with others for both alumni was, however, talking with clients and the public. This is what my fellow SALC students seemed to assume and, I can confirm, they assumed correctly. Both Alex and Olivia said that they really enjoyed getting to talk to the community and that that is what most of their jobs involve.

Motivation and enjoyment

Now I have established what the working week may look like, it is important to see what people like and dislike about their jobs so that you can see if you think a public sector role might suit you. Interestingly, when asked what they thought people liked the most about working in the public sector, SALC students unanimously said that being involved in contributing to society would be their main motivation. While Alex did say that he liked seeing policy he had worked on coming into fruition, and so feeling a sense of fulfilment in being able to see change happen, neither Alex nor Oliva said that feeling like they were contributing to society was the main thing they liked about their jobs. Olivia said it was the amazing and inspiring people that she works with, particularly volunteers in the community, that bring her the most joy. Meanwhile, Alex said that having the power to help people progress in their careers really motivated him.

In terms of dislikes, SALC students gave a mixture of answers but the two most common were a feeling that the pay was not good enough and that there would be a lack of autonomy and creativity in a public sector job. Neither Olivia or Alex mentioned pay as something they disliked, and they both thought there was room for creativity. Although Alex said that in his specific role he is not very creative, he highlighted that there are many roles that are. Oliva’s main dislike was that her role in sport and culture sometimes feels less important by comparison with crucial issues the council deals with, such as homelessness. However, she said that she still feels like her job is vital to society’s wellbeing, so you may have to learn to cope with imposter syndrome when working in the public sector. Alex said that he dislikes when people go into a discussion about policy with a set idea that they won’t change. Although I can imagine this is annoying, it shows that people with varying ideas can all work together in the public sector, even if they irritate each other sometimes!

The skills you need and the skills you learn on the job

The students I interviewed thought that resilience and adaptability were some of the key skills required in a public sector role but, although I am sure they are important for most jobs, these were not the skills that Olivia and Alex thought they had developed the most. Olivia said that learning to not people please was the most important skill she had developed, and Alex said he had improved his mathematical skills (something he had not used much during his Modern History and Politics degree). Having said this, when asked what surprised him most about working in the public sector, Alex did say that he was surprised by his degree’s usefulness. Although he may have had to develop his mathematical skills, he emphasised how much he uses the writing and analytical skills that he developed during his degree.

Final tips: what can you do right now to get your foot in the door?

Olivia was a peer mentor and the Secretary of the Theology Society during her time at Manchester and that she thinks both of these roles improved her confidence and ability to talk to people. Meanwhile, Alex did an internship during the summer after his second year and highly recommends it as a way into the workplace. Both of these are things you can get involved in right now while at university, so it is worth having a look at the opportunities available. I hope this post has given you a bit of insight into the world of the public sector and potentially busted some myths along the way.

If you’ve been inspired by this article to find out more about the public sector, the Which Career section of the Careers Service website not only has a specific page on working in National, local and regional government, but also information on the Education, Healthcare and Crime & Justice sectors.

If you’re interested in gaining work experience before graduating like Alex did, check out the Careers Service’s Finding jobs and experience page, which includes tips on how to secure part-time jobs, internships and placements.

Thank you for reading,

Chloe Gordon, Third Year History Student at UOM and SALC Employability Champion