On Campus

Bureaucracy now!

Why so many students dream of working for the government

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

It can be lonely for recruiters manning the booths for big banks or retailers at Ryerson University’s student job fairs. “The government agencies get a lot more attention,” says Ian Ingles, the organizer of the Toronto events.

That’s no surprise, considering the statistics. In a recent survey for Studentawards.com, 30 per cent of university students picked the government of Canada as their employer of choice. Then came Health Canada. Provincial governments did well too, beating out all of the banks and the video game developers. Even the trendiest private sector companies, Apple and Google, couldn’t beat the federal agencies.The results echo another recent survey of nearly 10,000 Canadian students by research firm Universum. In it, arts graduates, for example, gave the government of Canada, the provincial governments and Health Canada gold, silver and bronze respectively.

The recession explains some of the zeal for the civil service. During the rough days of 2009, students got the message that private companies were shedding employees while government workers were relatively unaffected: there was a record-setting 4,000 applications for 106 Ontario government internships in early 2009.

But how to explain the post-recession jump in applications for the same internship program? Last March, even with many private sector employers hiring graduates again, applications to the annual program grew by more than 20 per cent to just over 5,000 for 76 spots.

Demographics—and the altruistic goals of new graduates—best explain the march toward public service, says Sandra Botha, a campus recruiter for the government of British Columbia. Modern immigrants to Canada are proud to work for the government, she says. “Many students perceive a government job as having a lot of prestige, because it did in their parents’ country of origin,” she explains. “We have many more Chinese-Canadians applying in B.C., and if you come from China, working for the government is considered the job.”

The government would have been the only job available for Elias Samuel had he stayed in his native Ethiopia, he says. “You don’t really have any other options if you graduate from engineering,” says the 2010 graduate of Brandon University. Samuel fled his country as a refugee after he was threatened by police for demonstrating against the dictatorship. Still, he maintains a strong desire to work in the public sector. He’s even considering a master’s degree in statistics to improve his chances of landing a government gig.

Samuel says working for the government will teach him skills to help change the world. “Canada is a very democratic government and everything works smoothly,” he says. “Maybe if I worked for the government here, then I could one day go back to my country and implement change to the system,” he says.

Botha has witnessed strong altruism among Canadian-born students too. “If we have an external position posted for anything environmental, we have huge numbers of people applying,” she says. “They all want to make a difference to climate change.”

That may explain the growing number of degree programs directed at students with big plans for the planet. Trent University recently accepted the first class of students into its new masters in sustainability studies program, which includes political science courses to prepare students for work in government ministries. The University of Guelph is currently training Canada’s first ever Ph.D.s in international development studies.

David Turpin, the president of the University of Victoria, says more students want to change the world than ever, but he has another explanation for the lure of the government gig: they are successfully fighting the stereotype that the public service is boring, he says. That’s something Ingles, the Ryerson career expert, says he’s noticed too.

Of course, pensions, perks, and job security are nothing to sneeze at. Manvi Kapoor, a soon-to-be human resources graduate of Ryerson University, says the high starting wage was why she applied to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services two summers ago. The benefits—including life insurance, guaranteed nine-to-five workdays, and plenty of vacation time—are the reasons she’ll go back. There’s no need to re-apply; even summer students have enviable job security.

Kapoor sees one potential snag in her future plans. “People of my generation are really restless to move up quickly,” she says. “But because of the good job security in government, people stay in their jobs 10 years or more before ever making a move.” That could slow things down. “If I want to move up, I’ll have to wait for people to literally die off one by one,” she says.

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