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WORK LIFE-FRESHERS' FACES

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Economic difficulties are turning the private sector off graduates - councils should capitalise and cream off the b...
Economic difficulties are turning the private sector off graduates - councils should capitalise and cream off the best of the talent, says Anne Gulland

The economic downturn may well prove to be a blessing in disguise for local government. A slowing economy could go a long way to curing the public sector's recruitment ills.

According to recent research by the Association of Graduate Recruitment many private sector employers are becoming jittery about taking on young, untrained staff when economic prospects are decidedly shaky.

According to the association's survey of 166 leading firms a quarter of employers have cut the number of graduate vacancies, almost one in five have deferred graduate posts and one in 10 have withdrawn job offers.

In these uncertain times young job-seekers are far more likely to turn to employers who can offer them stability and security. And, says Tim Hodey, a consultant in career development at the Local Government National Training Organisation, now could be a good time for councils to look at this previously untapped pool of talent.

'There are job cuts in the City and big employers are going to reduce graduate intake or suspend programmes. There are going to be far more graduates out there and richer pickings for councils.'

One council which has realised the potential of the graduate market is Lewisham LBC, which relaunched its graduate trainee scheme last month. Six graduates from a range of disciplines are to work in the council's housing service on a year-long programme. Chosen from over 200 applicants the trainees will spend a year working in all areas of housing - looking at everything from rent arrears to rent collection to allocating properties. They will also be given the opportunity to work in other areas such as transport or the mayor's office. At the end of the year they will then apply for a permanent post in the housing office.

Khosi Mabena, service development co-ordinator at the council and one of the people in charge of the scheme, says the programme is part of the borough's drive to recruit more young people.

'We discovered the average age of staff at the council was over 40 and we realised opportunities weren't opening up for young people.' She believes graduates have a lot to offer potential employers.

Neo Rakodi, one of the current crop of trainees, believes students no longer fit the stereotype of overeducated wasters.

He says: 'When I was at university I learned how to organise my time and keep to deadlines. I learned key skills such as how to use computers and write projects. I learned a lot of life skills.'

For Westminster City Council developing a graduate trainee scheme was about 'growing their own managers'. During the three-year scheme, which has a generous starting salary of£24,000, the graduates have six placements throughout the whole organisation.

Alison French, organisational development manager at the council, says: 'The graduate trainees work across the council and because of this they understand the organisation's aims and objectives. They have a broad experience across all departments.'

While the council benefits, the scheme offers excellent career opportunities to the candidates. One of Lewisham's original trainees is now a senior manager in the environmental services department while Westminster City Council has lost some of its trainees to bigger organisations.

Ms French says: 'We have lost some graduates to the Greater London Authority and I know for a fact they wouldn't have got those big policy jobs without their experience here.'

The national training organisation is bidding for funding from the Local Government Association for a national graduate recruitment scheme, similar to the NHS scheme and civil service fast-track programme. If successful 50 graduates will work in councils throughout England and Wales.

Mr Hodey says local government needs to promote itself to graduates and universities.

'Local government doesn't do itself any favours and has not taken on board the fact that there are more graduates than ever before.

'However, councils are facing more recruitment problems and more skill shortages than ever before. They cannot afford to ignore graduates.'

Neo Rakodi agrees local government needs to promote itself.

'Most people think local government is about old men in dusty rooms. If that were the case I would not have applied.'

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