Do you have your eye on a job in the public sector? It’s a great place to work – nothing beats it for stability, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that your work is helping to make people’s lives easier. You’ll enjoy good healthcare and employment rights, plus a great pension when you reach retirement age. You might be working in your local community or even at national level, but whichever is the case, you’ll find that competition for these roles is tough. If you’re serious about getting one, you’ll need to polish up your skills. This article provides some practical advice on how to do so.
Demonstrate your commitment
Because public sector roles are ultimately about providing a service to the public, it really helps to have a track record that shows your commitment to the wellbeing of the public. Some jobs in the private sector are good for this, and there’s also the possibility of third sector work, which is relatively easy to add to your resume because of the number of volunteer roles available. If you decide to take this latter route, look for a position that is focused on the same community you would be serving in your ideal public sector job, or one that allows you to make use of similar skills to those you will likely need in that role.
Many public bodies run groups for different projects through which they directly engage with members of the public in a way that informs their strategic priorities. Joining such a group will show that you’re committed and also give you the opportunity to learn more about the organization’s working methods. Many people are naïve about the sheer scale of the work that public bodies undertake until they find themselves in a position like this, and it helps a lot if you can go into a job interview with a clear, established understanding of the full range of issues that you might find yourself dealing with as well as the volume of work involved. This is not just about what you will be taking on personally (if you are successful), but also about what the team you join will be aiming to achieve.
Learn the rules
Generally, public sector roles involve following a lot of rules in order to ensure that you fit comfortably into the hierarchy around you and are able to deal with the public directly or indirectly without putting anyone at risk. A lot of these rules are most easily picked up by habit, but because all employers understandably want to hire people who can hit the ground running, public sector recruiters prefer people who already know them. This is one of the main reasons why it’s easier to move from one public sector role to another than to break into the sector in the first place.
The good news is that you don’t need to have a job within the sector to start learning. In order to support the principle of transparency that is vital to the sector’s functioning, these rules and codes of conduct have to be available for anyone to view. This gives you the opportunity to study them before applying for a job, and to raise the matter at interview, making it clear that you already have a pretty good understanding of what will be required of you and of the constraints within which you will be expected to work.
Get safety training
Perhaps the most important part of preparing for a role in the public sector is learning how to do your job without causing immediate harm to anyone. That’s what safety training is for, and although some aspects of it must inevitably be role-specific, or even specific to particular workplaces, there’s a lot you can learn in advance. Studying for a Master’s in Public Safety online will leave you well prepared for the sort of scenarios that you are likely to encounter, as well as giving you an in-depth understanding of the evolution of public safety standards, what they are, and how they work.
This kind of study, which can easily be undertaken from home or fitted around an existing job, will also enable you to do your job with minimal risk of harm to yourself. Covering mental as well as physical safety concerns, it will teach you how to identify and record problems, how to handle complaints, what to do when somebody has been harmed or when you observe reckless behavior, and how to stay on the right side of the law. While not everybody who works in the public sector has this advanced level of understanding, it’s needed within every department, so a qualification such as this can significantly improve your chances of being hired.
Get equality training
Public sector workers are there to serve the public, and that means everybody. Even in a society where we might all seem to have equal rights, in practice many people suffer as a result of prejudice and discrimination based on characteristics they cannot change, and we all grow up with biases that we might not recognize in ourselves. One of the most important aspects of equality training is learning to accept this and to listen to the perspectives of others. It will also teach you why small things matter, because while dramatic bias incidents might be obviously wrong, those that are harder to spot and might seem trivial to someone not directly affected can collectively do real harm over time.
Public bodies are usually required to have equality policies, which you can either find on their websites or access by request, and you should familiarize yourself with these before applying for a position. Remember that they are there to protect you as well as other people, even if you don’t think of yourself as belonging to a vulnerable group (almost everybody does eventually, due to the prevalence of age discrimination). As well as helping you to avoid causing offence, being alert to equality issues will enable you to engage more effectively with colleagues and members of the public alike, and accessing more varied perspectives will enhance your ability to do your job.
Improve your organizational skills
Once you know how to avoid getting things wrong, it’s time to focus on how to get them right. At the core of most public sector roles is the need to be extremely well organized. Even if you’re working within a tight unit and following instructions, you’ll be expected to do a lot of thinking for yourself, and many roles involve project work that you’ll need to manage yourself. You’ll need to be able to draw up realistic budgets and stick to them, manage your own schedule, and be adept at working things out if you don’t know how to do them at the outset. You’ll also need to have a good understanding of the limits of your own capacity. You won’t be expected to know everything or be able to do everything no matter what is asked of you, but you will create a bad impression if you don’t know how to acknowledge your limitations and seek help where necessary.
One of the best ways to improve your organizational abilities from a work perspective is to focus on getting better organized in your day-to-day life. This will also make the job application process much easier. Think about how you manage your own routines – and those of your children, if you have any – and consider how you might do better, with a particular focus on areas where you know that you’re prone to making errors or taking too long to get things done.
Improve your teamwork skills
Every public sector role is, on some level, about functioning within a hierarchy, and a lot of the work involves operating directly within a team. Being able to communicate effectively with colleagues and get along well is important to doing this successfully. In many roles, you will also find yourself doing team-based project work, which may involve people from another department or even selected members of the public, and in some roles you will be expected to facilitate teamwork within groups. Some of the necessary skills can be picked up as you go along, but it really helps to get some experience in this area. One good way to do so is by playing or organizing team sports, which might sound very different but actually involve a lot of the same techniques. Listing any team sports you’ve played on your resume helps to show that you’re a good choice for this sort of job.
There are many good books on teamwork that can also help you improve your skills in this area, and if you take an online course, regardless of the subject, you will normally find that there are opportunities to do collaborative project work that will help to refine experience gained elsewhere. Because every team works slightly differently, the more diverse your experience in this area, the better.
Because there’s such a strong focus on fitting in and on understanding the rules and working practices attendant to public sector roles, hiring in this area often favors those who have personal connections to those already in the post. This makes networking important, and fortunately, there are lots of opportunities to do it, not just through routine networking events, but also through town hall meetings and any number of smaller, locally run events that bring the public into contact with local officials and public sector workers. Going along to events such as these with helpful information or constructive points to make can be a great way to get to know people and let them know that you’re a competent, useful person with a passion for your particular area of interest.
Public sector work often requires liaising with influential people in the private and third sectors, as well as having good connections with community members directly affected by the work, with those from underrepresented groups especially important to access. If you have a good collection of contacts such as this who you can discuss at the interview, it will help to make you a very attractive candidate, because the recruiters will know that hiring you could give the whole department an advantage.
Understand your constituency
If you’re going to be successful in a public sector role, you need to understand the people you’re serving and the environmental context of your work. Demonstrating that you have these skills early on can significantly increase your chances of being hired. While it can help to have grown up in the area, and people often like to make a point of having been born there, it’s more useful simply to establish that you understand it in terms of its public sector infrastructure and how that maps onto residents’ needs.
In some roles, you will not be working with the population at large, but with a particular subset of people, such as those who live in housing projects or those who use a particular transport network. In such cases, you should get to know as much as you can about those people, their demographics and their practical concerns. Look for opportunities to spend time with them, such as volunteer work or participation in community groups, so that you can demonstrate your interest and connection.
By following this advice, you can make yourself a much more attractive choice for public sector recruiters. Keep in mind that this is an area where your skills and attitude mean a lot more than advanced academic achievement or even formal experience. As long as you can demonstrate that you have a good understanding of the relevant issues and the ability to follow through, you will stand a good chance of getting the role you want. If you don’t succeed the first time, the things you will learn about the sector as you work on improving your chances will point you to many similar positions that are well worth pursuing.