Younger workers underrepresented in public sector, report says

Better marketing of opportunities is required, experts suggest, with just 12 per cent of workforce aged under 25

The public sector is failing to attract younger employees and is dramatically underrepresented among 18 to 24-year-olds, according to a new report that experts said highlighted the issues the sector faced in marketing itself in a competitive labour market.

The report, published by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), found that 18 to 24-year-olds made up just 12 per cent of the total public sector workforce, compared to 20 per cent for those aged 25-34. Employees aged 35-44 represented 24 per cent of the workforce and 26 per cent were aged 45-54.

The IES said this represented an underrepresentation of the age group and contrasted poorly with other sectors such as manufacturing and construction – where the split is more even – or hospitality. The figures suggest the public sector may be struggling to achieve sufficient attrition to enable a healthy intake of younger employees, or that slowdowns in hiring have prevented it from taking on new talent.

The IES said the low intake of younger people could be down to cuts to public services during the post-2008 period of austerity, and raised concerns that it meant this age group was missing out on the secure work and market-leading conditions – including career development and pension provisions – that the public sector offered.

Responding to the report, Karen Grave, president of the Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA), acknowledged that not enough young people were entering the sector, but said blaming it on austerity was a “red herring”.

Speaking to People Management, Grave said the PPMA’s own research found that while young people were less likely to join the public sector as a career, they still had the same optimistic outlook on the sector as other age groups. “What that tells us is it’s about awareness and accessibility,” she said.

Grave added that the PPMA had begun outreach work with schools, colleges and other educational bodies, but that it was clear “how little understanding younger people have about public service careers”.

“It’s a multifaceted problem, but the starting point is the public sector has to do better in terms of marketing itself,” she said. “For us, in terms of employers looking for new talent to supplement our existing workforce, the key thing is do our young people understand how to get into public service and the whole scope of careers available?”

The IES report also looked at employment conditions for young people outside the public sector, and found that wages remained below pre-financial crisis levels despite above-inflation increases in the minimum wage – driven primarily by a fall in the number of hours worked and an increase in part-time working. 

Nearly one in seven young people were ‘underemployed’ and not working as many hours as they would like. The report said this proportion had increased during the financial crisis, but had not returned to pre-crisis levels.

Tony Wilson, IES director and co-author of the report, said young people still faced “significant disadvantages” in the jobs market. “For young people in work, we find that the quality of that work has deteriorated significantly – with young people working fewer hours than before the recession, more than one in seven classed as underemployed, and a similar number in temporary and insecure work,” he said.

Wilson added that old labels for youth unemployment, such as the categorisation NEETs – for those not in employment, education or training – were no longer fit for purpose. “We need a new and more joined-up approach, focused on supporting all young people to access secure, meaningful and healthy work,” he said.

Jon Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD, said: “Transitioning from education into the labour market is a pivotal moment in everyone’s career and can pose a number of challenges, as this IES report highlights.

“The ‘downgrading’ in work since the crash could be down to overqualification and some groups being pushed out by more qualified workers, even when those qualifications aren’t really needed to do the job.

“Our own research has found that more than a third of workers are in jobs they are over-skilled for. Employers need to improve how they manage and develop their people to address this.”

More than a third of young people are also ‘downgrading’ the work they take on, the report said, meaning they are accepting jobs below their level of qualification. This number started rising during the financial crisis and has continued to do so, driven by young people studying longer and achieving higher-level qualifications.

Minority groups, including BAME young people, those with disabilities, young parents and those with the lowest level of qualifications, all face additional disadvantages when entering the labour market. The report said these groups were more likely to be unemployed than their peers, with the proportion of young disabled people unemployed or economically inactive significantly higher.