From the emergency services and healthcare to education and social care, by choosing a career in the public sector you'll get to work on issues that have a real impact on society

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 5.6 million people are employed in the UK's public sector - accounting for nearly a sixth of all those in paid work (December 2020). It's clear that it's a huge employment source, but what exactly is the public sector?

In a nutshell, the public sector is responsible for providing all public services in the UK, including:

  • education
  • emergency services
  • healthcare
  • housing
  • refuse collection
  • social care.

What areas of the public sector can I work in?

Opportunities in the public services can be broadly categorised into the two main areas of central and local government, which employ around 3.39 million and 2.01 million people respectively (December 2020).

These aren't your only options - you can find work with a number of other public services, but these tend to cross over with other sectors. These include:

Opportunities in administration can be categorised into general, specialist (for example, legal, educational, agricultural and medical) and professional (such as personal assistant or company secretary). Every sector needs administration staff, so you'll be able to find work in a range of settings.

For examples of job roles, see public sector and administration jobs.

Who are the main graduate employers?

There are two key employers in the public services: the Civil Service and local government. The Civil Service departments, agencies or public bodies you could work for include:

  • Diplomatic Service
  • Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)
  • Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)
  • Government Economic Service (GES)
  • Government Legal Profession (GLP)
  • Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
  • Government Social Research Profession (GESR)
  • Government Statistical Service (GSS)
  • HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
  • HM Treasury
  • National Crime Agency (NCA)
  • Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), MI6
  • Security Service, MI5.

In local government, roles can be found in areas including:

  • architecture, heritage and housing
  • environmental health
  • media and communications
  • social services
  • surveying and town planning
  • Trading Standards
  • youth and community work.

Other notable employers in the public services include:

  • the armed forces
  • Bank of England (BoE)
  • British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
  • Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA)
  • Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)
  • National Audit Office (NAO)
  • National Probation Service (NPS)
  • NHS
  • ONS
  • The British Museum.

What's it like working in the sector?

You can expect:

  • jobs to be available throughout the UK
  • good working conditions
  • a median starting salary of £24,200 for those employed by one of the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers (High Fliers' The Graduate Market in 2021 report)
  • some roles to be stressful - you'll work to tight deadlines and have a high degree of responsibility
  • some jobs to have strict nationality entry requirements
  • plenty of opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD)
  • to be able to travel as part of your job, both locally and nationally, while some posts will offer the chance to work abroad.

To find out more about typical salaries and working conditions in your chosen career, browse our public services and administration job profiles.

What are the key issues in the public sector?

According to The State of the State 2020-21, a collaboration between professional services firm Deloitte and British think tank Reform, which collects the views of the public, sector leaders and those working at the frontline of UK public services, more than half of the public (58%) believe that opportunities for young people will be worse as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This was highlighted as one of the key areas that the public expects investment in, along with health, social care, crime and housing. However, despite this pessimism surrounding employment, the High Fliers report has revealed that leading public sector employers are expected to be the largest recruiters of new graduates in 2021 - showing that around 5,400 entry-level roles will be made available during the year.

The annual Deloitte survey also found that people were more hopeful for a renewed community spirit and innovation in business, with the NHS the most trusted part of the sector, followed by the police.

Nearly half of the public questioned for the survey also agree that pursuing a green recovery will help to boost the economy, but public sector leaders responded by calling for a greater investment in skills, with these more closely aligned to businesses.

The leaders also felt that the government and public services has delivered for the country during 2020, with faster decision-making and agility in adapting to a new way of working.

As the country starts to recover from the pandemic, health and social care are two key areas where professional skills will be in high demand. And while the public sector is regarded as one of the UK's most trustworthy sectors, there is still concern surrounding the secure handling of personal data.

Therefore, graduates with the latest technical skills in cyber security, big data and artificial intelligence (AI), would also find job opportunities in public services.

Find out more

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