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The public sector is changing, and so are the jobs many students are hoping to nab

Photo by Tina Wallace

You’re a typical student, concerned for the future, in debt, and wondering how you’ll land a fulfilling and high-paying job to make these past few years seem worth the while.

You’ve given some thought to where you’d like to work, but you’ll soon be on stage, diploma in hand, and despite what you tell your mother, the future has never seemed more uncertain. Should your full-time grown-up job be one you’re passionate about or one that’s realistic and practical?

“Apply to the public service,” you’ve heard so many people say. You’re tempted, knowing the advantages that come with it, but you remain unsure whether it’s right for you.

Could the government be your ultimate dream job? More importantly, do you have what it takes to work for Canada’s largest employer?

Modernizing the public service
The public sector has undergone several changes recently. In fact, the Conservative government is on a mission to reform, or modernize, the public service to reflect the realities of the day.

It is written in the Seventh Report to the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service that “tomorrow’s public service must reflect the fact that the world has changed dramatically and that people work and communicate differently than the way they did just 20 years ago.”

This could explain the government’s efforts to trim the size of the public sector and align it more with the conditions of the private sector through a series of reforms.

In what Kelly McParland, editor and blogger at the National Post, has called the “alleged war on Canada’s public servants,” the federal government has eliminated 16,000 jobs, bumped up the retirement age, increased pension plan contributions, introduced performance reviews, and put an end to severance packages for employees who leave voluntarily. It has also announced that it plans to end the banking of sick days.

Gilles Grenier, University of Ottawa economics professor and Canadian labour market expert, said the reduction in benefits and number of civil servants results from the recent cuts in the federal budget.

“This situation can help the government be more efficient. It’s a bit like the private sector,” he said. “When things get bad, firms have to adjust.”

So changes are taking place, but do we care? As potential future civil servants, should we be concerned?

The answer is more complicated than you might think. Although cutting jobs renders getting one inevitably more difficult and cutting benefits removes one of the biggest incentives of working for the government, some students may prefer these working conditions that mirror the private sector.

In that sense, recent changes might make the public service more attractive to students who are looking for a more competitive work environment. Often students have viewed the government as too relaxed.

Myriam, who requested not to use her surname, was once one of these students when she attended the U of O. Before having worked for the government, she believed it would not have been a very engaging place to work.

“Being in Ottawa, I was considering it, because it’s such a big employer,” she said. “But I had heard a lot of things, like you don’t really work and you just sit at your desk and do nothing, and I didn’t want to do that.”

Now a full-time employee, Myriam enjoys her job and finds it challenging, and said she has learned as much as she would have in the private sector. Nevertheless, her early impression reveals something important. Perception is everything. And people’s negative perceptions are precisely what the government is trying to change.

The benefits of benefits
It’s no surprise that government benefits have been viewed as being among the best—they’re better than many even realize. That said, it’s also no surprise that the federal government has decided to limit them, at least to some extent.

In the public service, employees receive 15 bankable sick days per year, in addition to five family days. According to Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board of Canada, in an article that appeared in the National Post, this accounts for the high absenteeism rates in the public service, which are the highest in Canada.

The article states that government workers take 18.2 days of paid and unpaid leave per year per worker compared to 6.7 days in the private sector. The article goes on to explain that, in their year of retirement, employees working in 2009–2010 used an average of 44.6 banked sick days, which is equivalent to two full months of work.

For these reasons, the government is looking to replace the current system of banked sick days with one that would cover short and long-term absences. The Conservatives have also altered government pension plans so that employees are forced to pay an equal share of their pension contributions.

“Banked sick days, voluntary severance, and pensions fully funded by employers are relics of another generation—another century—one that is out of step with the times we live in today,” Clement wrote.

Despite the changes, government workers continue to enjoy competitive benefits and wages.

“Government wages and benefits in the public sector are still better than those in the private sector,” said Grenier. “Some estimates say about 15 per cent better, because public sector workers traditionally have enjoyed job security and their unions were able to keep wages high.”

This may explain why university students continue to view public service wages and benefits as an incentive.

Myriam, who has many friends in the private sector, said she has it good compared to her friends.

“I’m not working as many hours as I would be in the private sector, so I can enjoy my life,” she said.

Maxine Quenneville, a student at the U of O, has worked jobs in both the public and private sectors in various placements during her co-op program. From what she has seen, she too believes civil servants continue to have it good.

“People in the public service definitely get a lot of benefits, and their retirement plans are pretty good,” said Quenneville. “The fact that they even get a retirement plan is nice, whereas with a lot of private companies you don’t. I think government benefits cover pretty much everything you would ever need.”

It seems, then, that government workers continue to be well taken care of, even with the government’s recent efforts to modernize the institution.

The new workforce
Benefits aren’t always everything, though. Many young workers expect to get more out of work than a nice paycheque and a pension plan.

Lauren Friese and Cassandra Jowett from TalentEgg, an online career resource for students and recent graduates, argue that millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, have different expectations when it comes to work. They say our expectations have changed our working habits, which in turn have earned us a bad reputation.

“After just a few years in the labour market, millennials have earned a reputation for being lazy, unprofessional, entitled ‘digital natives’ who expect to start as interns on Monday and be chief executive officers by Friday,” they wrote in the Globe and Mail.

But they contend that we aren’t as horrible as the baby boomers make us out to be. We’ve simply grown up in a different world, where smartphones, laptops, and tablets have enabled us to always be on call.

“Millennials won’t be satisfied to just punch in and sit at a desk from nine to five, Monday to Friday,” they wrote. “That’s so 20th century.”

Since work is occupying a larger part of our lives, more students are now looking to pursue jobs that are meaningful and fulfilling. These individuals want to dedicate their lives to their jobs, as long as they love them and feel they’re making a real difference.

Results from a study published in Forbes Magazine found that 72 per cent of students consider having a job where they have an impact to be important or essential to their happiness. In comparison, only 52 per cent of workers felt this way.

This desire to do meaningful work may be discouraging students from applying to the public service, Jacquelyn Folville explained, because many people feel government workers are insignificant in relation to the overall size of government.

Folville, who studied at the U of O and now works for the Department of National Defence, said she had this conception of government while she was in university.

“I think my perception before I started working for the government was like most people’s. You’re sort of this cog in the machine,” she said. “Which is true to some extent, but once you start working here and you get to know the people, it’s just like working in any other office setting.”

Our desire to make an impact through our work, to avoid being a “cog in the machine,” means we’re looking to be fully engaged in our jobs. One of the best ways to achieve this is by working in a field we’re passionate about. According to Quenneville, this can be tough to find in a government position.

“The topics can often be a little boring,” she said. “I’ve worked in pensions, which is not that exciting for a marketing student. It was a really good job, but even some of my more fun tasks dealt with pensions, which can make it difficult to get engaged.”

For this reason, appealing to millennials may become more difficult for the public service in the future, since students hoping to be passionate about their work may find it hard to feel this way about many federal departments and agencies.

However, the problem may only be one of perception. In reality, not all government jobs are boring.

During her studies, Folville worked as a co-op student with Army News, which produced video news segments on the Canadian Army. This led her to another placement within National Defence, where she worked as a reporter for the military newspaper the Guard of Honour. She believes her experiences attest to the fact that government does offer some interesting opportunities.

“Working for Army News was entirely different than doing a newsletter or taking meeting notes,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to see that there are some jobs within the government that can be more creative and fun. It just depends on which section or team you’re working with.”

Aileen Simon, a fourth-year political science student at the U of O, said despite never having personally worked as a federal civil servant, she thinks that government jobs can offer excitement and stability.

“Ideally, I think someone would look for the best of both worlds and I don’t think these ideas are mutually exclusive,” she said. “I feel like government jobs can provide that security but also allow for opportunity, versatility, and excitement depending on the sector.”

Simon also believes the long-term payoff of having worked for the government is important to consider.

“Although the jobs given to younger workers can sometimes not be as entertaining or stimulating, truthfully, they look good on a résumé and that’s something that’s important to most young workers,” she said.

Getting in and staying in

When it comes to finding work, the public sector is no different than the rest of the labour market. With the recent economic downturn and the federal government trying to balance the books, thousands of jobs have been cut in an attempt to make the public service more efficient and less expensive.

According to the Clerk of the Privy Council’s website, in 2012 the federal public service dropped to roughly 262,900 employees from 278,000. This has made it more difficult to land a full-time job with the government.

What’s more, the same website indicates the percentage of student employment, which includes students enrolled in programs like co-op and the Federal Student Work Experience Program, has been significantly reduced—to 1.6 per cent in 2012 from 4.7 per cent in 2009.

But not all hope is lost for students serious about getting in, especially for those in the Ottawa area. Public servants in the National Capital Region represent 41 per cent of all federal government employees.

Moreover, the university’s co-op and internship programs continue to be good ways of getting a foot in the door, according to students who have been involved in the programs.

Quenneville believes she has made a number of promising connections through her co-op placements, and both Nicole and Folville once worked as students in the departments where they have acquired permanent positions.

“Once I was done my co-op, they kept me on part-time during school, and then they saw the need for an extra person,” said Folville. “In that sense, it worked out well. They had seen me work, liked what I brought to the table and liked what I did, so I was able to get in that way.”

Folville nevertheless had to work contract to contract for nearly a year before finding a permanent job with her team, which meant she was often left uncertain whether she would have a job a few months down the road.

“In the long run, government will continue to be a good prospect for university graduates,” said Grenier. “In the mid 1990s, there were similar cuts in the government. Things came back to normal a few years later.”

On another positive note, graduates who successfully infiltrate the public service have a good chance of staying there for many years. For a number of different reasons, many even spend their entire careers with the service, especially since employee turnover is practically nonexistent.

“Once you’re in, you’re set. They don’t really fire people,” said Quenneville.

In the National Post, Clement wrote that the government often looks the other way when dealing with underperformers. The dismissal rate in the public service is 0.06 per cent, whereas it can range from five to 10 per cent in the private sector.

“More people died while on the federal payroll last year than were let go,” wrote Clement.

But workers aren’t only sticking around because the government refuses to exercise its right to fire its worst employees. Workers often have the option to move from department to department whenever job opportunities arise. Many jobs are posted internally within the government for that reason.

“Once I passed the contract phase and there was no more fixed end date, if I wanted to work here for the next 40 years, I could,” said Folville. “I could stay and move around and do other jobs within the government.”

Federal employees are also generally satisfied with their jobs. In the 2011 Public Service Employee Survey, which provided public servants an opportunity to express their views on various aspects of their work and work environment, 82 per cent indicated that overall, they liked their job and found satisfaction in their work.

Whether we, as future employees, will continue to be as satisfied in public service jobs is another question. But those who are willing to face a rapidly changing work environment and to sacrifice some excitement for stability might just be surprised at how fulfilling a job in the government can be—if they can get in.