How do I get into a career in public service?

How do I get into a career in public service?
Find out about graduate schemes and school leaver programmes with public service employers such as local councils, the Civil Service, MI5, MI6 and GCHQ.

There are so many different career options in public service that there’s bound to be a suitable path for you, whatever your strengths are, and whether you want to go to university or not. The most established fast-track training routes for senior and leadership roles are aimed at graduates, but there are also some higher level apprenticeship schemes suitable for school leavers who want professional qualifications, and these open up the possibility of applying for further training and advancement.

Alternatively, even if you don’t join a structured school leaver programme, if you take an entry-level job in public service you may be given the opportunity to train for a management position while working.

In some areas, relevant experience counts for as much as traditional university study and jobs are open to both graduates and non-graduates with the right skills. For example, GCHQ specifies that its applied research roles are open to anyone from a numerate or scientific background who has strong experience of problem solving using programming skills; you don’t necessarily need to have a degree.

Our advice on public service jobs and employers will give you some idea of the range of possibilities. Both relevant work experience and qualifications will help you get hired in the area that interests you. Here’s an overview of the different routes into working for some of the biggest and most sought-after public service employers.

Careers in central government: the Civil Service

The Civil Service Fast Stream currently recruits around 900 graduates a year and offers a range of specialist training routes. You’ll need at least a 2.2 or 2.1, depending on the route you apply for, and for some options a relevant degree subject is required. You can find out about subject and degree class requirements for the Civil Service Fast Stream from our advice on the university route into a career in public service.

There are also some other fast-track graduate schemes into careers in central government, such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) Defence Engineering and Science Group (DESG) scheme and the HM Revenue & Customs tax specialist programme, which both accept applications from graduates with 2.2s.

The Civil Service also offers apprenticeship schemes. You’ll need a minimum of five GCSEs at grade A* to C to apply. For the digital and technology scheme you’ll also need two A levels at grade A* to C in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering or maths), and for the project delivery scheme you'll need two A levels at grade A* to D.

The National Audit Office apprenticeship scheme is another structured, salaried training scheme open to school leavers interested in a public service career. If you’re keen to work with technology, the Met Office IT trainee scheme is open to non-graduates. You can find out more about these programmes from our advice on training programmes for school leavers in public service. You can also apply directly for Civil Service jobs via the Civil Service jobs website.

Careers in local government

The main graduate scheme for local government is the national graduate development programme. Alternatively, you could apply for a graduate scheme at a local authority, such as the Kent graduate programme, or for a specific vacancy. Jobs with local authorities are advertised on the local government jobsite and are available in areas such as administrative and clerical work, IT and housing. They include roles open to school leavers. Temp work for a local authority could help you get your foot in the door.

If you are interested in working in public finance and gaining professional training but don’t necessarily want to go to university, you could apply to Kent County Council’s accountancy trainee scheme. This is covered in more detail in our advice on school leaver programmes in public service.

Careers with MI5, MI6 and GCHQ

MI5, MI6 and GCHQ offer opportunities to graduates in a range of areas such as intelligence, data analysis and technology, along with some structured internship programmes for undergraduates. You’ll need a degree in a science, technology or maths-related subject for some roles, but others are open to applicants from any degree background.

You can find out more about what these organisations do and the types of roles available from our advice on jobs and employers in public service. Our tips on the university route into a career in public service include advice on the different graduate schemes on offer.

If you’re interested in working for MI5, MI6 or GCHQ but are also keen to explore alternatives to university, you have more options than you might think. These employers offer some training schemes for school leavers with A levels and you are eligible to apply for a range of positions as a non-graduate with relevant expertise and skills. Find out more from our advice on school leaver programmes in public service.

Work experience in public service

There are numerous internship schemes aimed at undergraduates that offer places within government departments during the summer vacation.

Public sector employers tend not to run structured work experience schemes along these lines for school students, but you may be able to arrange a short placement by applying speculatively or through your school. Work experience with employers in the private sector is also likely to help you when you’re applying for jobs in public service, as long as it has given you skills and insights that are relevant to the role you’re applying for. There’s a huge range of careers open to you in public service, from IT to accountancy, and work experience in any of these areas could potentially strengthen your applications.

Search for...

Degree Explorer

The Degree Explorer helps you plan for your future! Match your interests to university subjects and explore each recommendation to find out what suits you.

Get started

Teacher or parent?

Join our mailing list to receive monthly newsletters from our TARGETcareers and Inspiring Futures teams to help you support your school leavers in their career and university decision making.