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4 Expectations and career preferences of the future APS workforce

The traditional concept of an APS career is being overtaken by a growing diversity of career patterns and expectations among APS employees.

Generations X and Y

The next decade will see the baby boom generation, which has dominated the Australian Public Service (APS) for more than two decades, increasingly move into retirement, even though, as was discussed in Chapter 3, emerging labour shortages may require agencies to intensify their efforts to retain and/or attract back many of these potential retirees.

Over the next two decades, a growing proportion of APS leaders will be drawn from the generations born after 1964-the generations commonly referred to as 'X' (those born between about 1965 and 1978) and 'Y' (those born from around 1979 onwards).

A key issue for the APS is the possibility that these younger workers will be less likely than their predecessors to seek to pursue a lifelong APS career.

Some researchers have suggested that younger workers-especially those from Generation Y-are generally more ambitious and more mobile than the baby boomers; they expect rapid career advancement and personal development and, if they find they cannot fulfil these aims in one organisation or field, they will not hesitate to switch career paths. Hard data to support these assertions is difficult to find, not least because employees from Generation Y have not been in the workforce long enough for definitive career patterns to have emerged.

The best available data, from the ABS, shows that, in 2004, workers aged from 20 to 24 (that is, those from Generation Y) were the most mobile of all age groups, with around one-quarter having moved jobs in the previous 12 months. However, the rate of mobility among workers in that age group has remained approximately the same since the 1990s.28

What is clear is that, regardless of their attitudes to career mobility, younger skilled workers in 2005 face significantly fewer barriers to changing jobs than did their counterparts of 20 or more years ago, largely because:

  • more younger workers today possess recognised and transferable qualifications, such as degrees and diplomas
  • unemployment levels are relatively low
  • labour market reforms have removed some of the legislative, industrial relations, superannuation and cultural barriers to workforce mobility.

Figure 16 shows only a slight trend towards greater mobility in and out of the APS on the part of Generation X and Y employees, against the backdrop of declining separation rates among all APS employees.

Figure 16: Separation rates by age group, 1994-95 to 2003-04

Source: APSED

While the statistical evidence is not yet strong, many commentators suggest there is an emerging attitudinal shift among workforces in Western societies away from the concept of a career as a 'job for life', to one in which the typical worker can expect to make several changes of career direction during their working life, enabling them to develop a flexible set of skills which-more than any contracts or employment entitlements-they see as representing their main source of job security.

This more flexible and varied type of career path is sometimes termed a 'portfolio career'.

Attitudinal surveys of Generation X and Y workers have found they are more concerned than the baby boomers were with finding employers who will provide them with:

  • meaningful, important and challenging work
  • assistance to develop their skills
  • collaborative and flexible working arrangements
  • transparent processes for career advancement.

Comparative studies have shown that employees in the 21st century are more likely to remain and work productively in large organisations that clearly articulate and communicate the purpose and value of the roles staff are asked to perform, and that mentor those staff as they progress in those roles. These types of organisations are said to have fostered a high level of employee 'engagement'.29

Past staff surveys undertaken for Organisational Renewal and State of the Service reports show that graduate entrants and other younger APS employees are particularly attracted to work that intellectually stimulates them and helps them to develop their skills. Many graduates reported that, if the APS failed to provide them with such opportunities, they would seek to leave the public service.

Focus group findings further support perceptions that there is potentially a greater interest in career mobility among younger APS employees, and that management styles and approaches that increase engagement of these employees will be crucial in attracting and retaining them.

  • Generation X and Y participants in the focus groups reported that continuing availability of interesting and challenging work, along with feeling they were working for the 'public good', were major factors that would encourage them to remain in the APS, and were much more important to them than their level of remuneration.

'I was attracted to the APS because I wanted to undertake policy work'; 'Idealism attracted me. I liked the idea of making a contribution to society.'

  • They also stressed the importance to them of the level of managerial support they received, particularly in relation to their learning and development needs.

'A lot depends on the managers you get'; 'The only career input is from my managers. It is informal and ad hoc, but it's very useful. I find their experience and feedback very supportive.'

  • They cited barriers to risk-taking and innovation, failure of managers to deal with underperformance issues, and-in the case of service delivery workers located outside Canberra-'burn out' and stress arising from dealing with abusive members of the public, as factors that might discourage them from remaining in the APS in the longer term.

'The culture is so risk-averse, it's more about covering your own backside than being innovative'; 'There is a lack of reward and recognition to do the right thing'; 'The time lag between doing something and seeing the results can be a problem. The lack of results can be de-motivating'; 'Seven people review my work. There are just too many levels of approval, it is very frustrating.'

  • For some participants, the requirement to move to and/or remain in Canberra in order to advance to the upper echelons of most APS agencies was also a factor that made them feel they would be unlikely to remain in the APS for the whole of their career.

'There is less pay and career progression outside of Canberra'; 'Roles should be decentralised to outside of Canberra.'

  • The younger participants who were most inclined to remain in the APS for the rest of their careers cited the conditions of service promoting a work-life balance as a major attraction.

'It is the conditions that definitely make you want to stay, particularly if you want to have kids'; 'I'll be with the APS when I have kids; there are. perks, like maternity leave and flexible working practices.'

The focus group discussions highlighted a strong interest among younger employees in leaving the APS at some future point in order to achieve a 'rounded career'. Almost all the younger participants expressed an intention to work in an organisation outside the APS, at least for a while, within the next five to 10 years, although none had any definite plans for how they would achieve this. Most saw this option as preferable to that of remaining in the APS beyond this time in order to advance to the SES.

I'm open to the possibility of moving out of the APS and then returning, I'm interested in a similar sector overseas, but I don't have any clear plans in mind

I would like to have some time working out of Canberra, maybe for private enterprise. I feel like Canberra is very isolated from the rest of Australi

I keep an eye open for opportunities, but I'm playing it by ear. SES is not so appealing. I'll stay in the APS for a while so I can get some depth of experience.

If these younger staff do choose increasingly to seek career opportunities outside the APS, they will be assisted by recent changes to APS employment arrangements, such as:

  • the opening up of all APS positions to outside applicants since 1998 (which means that staff who leave the APS for a period need no longer expect to be automatically penalised in terms of their career progression)
  • the new Public Sector Superannuation Scheme Accumulation Plan, which will increase the portability of APS superannuation.

New APS employees who joined the APS on or after 1 July 2005 are joining-or have an option to join-the Public Sector Superannuation Scheme Accumulation Plan, which has replaced the existing Public Sector Superannuation Scheme defined benefit arrangement.

The Public Sector Superannuation Scheme Accumulation Plan offers a number of features not available to APS employees through defined benefits arrangements, including member investment choice and full portability of accumulated benefits on joining or leaving the scheme. The flexibility of the new arrangements is generally in line with that of accumulation funds in the private sector. The portability arrangements mean that superannuation arrangements are no longer a disincentive for employees seeking to transfer between the public and private sectors, although they may also make it generally more difficult for the APS to retain staff.

Experienced and skilled recruits to the APS

The growing proportion of staff who have joined the APS at age 35 or over as a second or subsequent career option has already been noted.

On the basis of the relatively higher rates of recruitment of this category of staff in agencies such as the Department of Education, Science and Training, the Department of Health and Ageing, FaCS and Centrelink (see Chapter 2), it can be assumed that a large number of these employees have moved from sectors such as health, education or community services into APS agencies that have dealings with those sectors.

The focus group exercise showed that these experienced and skilled entrants to the APS are typically attracted by factors such as job security, superannuation, opportunities for learning and development, and conditions promoting a work-life balance.

I like the security and the stability of working in the APS;

I'm approaching 60 and I enjoy that I can continue to learn and study. If I couldn't keep doing this I think I would leave and retire;

Work-life balance is much more achievable than in private sector.

Several of these staff-including people who had had a previous period of employment in the APS-reported that they were attracted to the growing 'professionalism' of the APS in the 21st century.

Most reported that they now expected to remain in the APS until their retirement, but none expressed any interest in seeking promotion to senior leadership levels.

The main concerns this group expressed related to mentoring and key learning and development opportunities-including orientation training-where they believed they were discriminated against in favour of younger recruits, especially graduate programme participants.

You need serious culture and awareness training when moving from the private sector into the APS;

It can be skills rather than subject matter training. I would also like to better understand where my role fits in the department.

Indigenous employees

The focus group exercise found that Indigenous employees were particularly attracted to the APS by factors such as:

  • the opportunity to work with Indigenous people on issues affecting Indigenous Australians
  • the availability of a secure, well remunerated job with superannuation and attractive conditions of service
  • access to learning and development
  • in the case of Indigenous graduates, the opportunity to use the knowledge and skills they had gained through their education, and to accumulate additional skills and experience through participation in the graduate programme.

Many Indigenous participants reported knowing very little about the APS before they joined it.

I had no knowledge of what it was like in the APS

Before I started within the Department, I could not even find out, or be provided with, any information about the role

Unlike those who had grown up in Canberra and might have learnt something along the way, outside of Canberra few people know anything about the APS.

Those who had been required to move to Canberra to take up APS employment- especially the graduates-found this to be a particularly daunting experience due to separation from their family and community.

Most Indigenous employees reported that they remained in the APS because of the attractions of the type of work they were undertaking. This was the case whether they were working on Indigenous-specific issues or more general issues.

The type of work is a great motivator and keeps me here

Working for the Indigenous community is a major factor in what keeps me here.

As with other groups, Indigenous employees reported that the APS conditions of service and learning and development opportunities are superior to those of the private sector.

The conditions of service are much better in the APS than in the private sector-in the private sector you often have to prove yourself to be irreplaceable before you are given access to flexibilities

Working in the APS provides the opportunity to gain experience and develop skills and expertise.

The concept of a portfolio career has resonance for many Indigenous employees, especially those whose main focus is on issues affecting Indigenous people. Some of these have joined the APS specifically to gain an insight into the public sector environment.

I was working on the other side, with a community organisation, when I decided that it would be good to work within government

For me it represented an intentional targeted move from the private to the public sector.

Some of these employees reported that they were required to operate simultaneously as an Indigenous employee in the APS and as a representative of government within their own community. They felt the complexities of this role were not adequately recognised by their management.

Like the younger participants in other focus groups, many of the Indigenous participants who currently work in Canberra indicated that they felt they would eventually need to leave the APS in order to return to their families and communities.

There are few opportunities at level outside of Canberra

Many Indigenous participants expressed frustration that they had been locked into Indigenous-specific roles and would have difficulty moving into other areas of the APS, where the applicability of their knowledge and expertise would not be recognised.

For those working outside Canberra, there was a feeling of being doubly stuck in their current position by a combination of the limited mobility opportunities within the APS in their geographic location and being stereotyped as being only suited for working on Indigenous issues.

The mantle of the expert is difficult to lose and for those wishing to move into other areas this was a hindrance to further opportunities

Mobility and transfer opportunities between agencies have fallen away.

Many Indigenous participants identified a requirement for all APS employees working with Indigenous issues to have an adequate level of 'cultural competency'. Some of those working outside Canberra reported recent 'de-motivating' experiences of working with people who did not have such cultural competency.

Like other groups, Indigenous employees emphasised the importance of managerial support for learning and career development in encouraging them to remain in the APS.

Employees with a disability

The focus group exercise found that people with disabilities were generally attracted to the APS for many of the same reasons as other types of employees, including:

  • the perceptions of job security and the opportunity to achieve a work-life balance
  • the possibility of making a contribution to society, particularly in relation to helping people in the general community who have a disability.

All participants with a physical disability reported that environmental difficulties in potential working environments had limited their career choices in the APS.

It's the wheels not my work that are restraining my career;

Knowledge, length of service and experience does not often count for much when you have a disability, it is more likely to be dictated by the issue of access.

All of them cited one or more cases where they had reluctantly turned down promotional or mobility opportunities because they would have been unable to physically get in and out of the workplace.

Participants also reported that the attitudes of supervisors and colleagues could pose significant problems to the career advancement of people with disabilities, and that these could be overcome by more education and training for staff about the issues confronting people with disabilities.

Like other focus group participants, people with a disability also indicated the importance of their immediate supervisor in determining their level of access to learning and development opportunities, and expressed a desire for greater access to mentoring and help with career planning.

Employees seeking a greater work-life balance

Another group of employees whose career expectations and preferences were explored in the focus groups is that of the growing proportion of APS staff accessing part-time work and other work-life balance benefits. Two sub-categories among this group are of particular interest, the career stabilisers and the semi-retirees.

Career stabilisers: those who are content to remain at the one level (for example, EL 1 in Canberra or APS 4-6 in a regional network) for an extended period while they raise a family or pursue interests outside work. Many of these staff will seek to work on a part-time basis, or will remain full-time but will be reluctant to take on additional responsibilities. Some participants in the focus groups reported that they were unenthusiastic about seeking promotion opportunities because these may jeopardise their access to conditions promoting a work-life balance.

As the numbers of these staff grow, agencies will need to develop strategies that maximise their contribution and productivity, while maintaining a sufficient level of flexibility in the overall agency workforce.

Semi-retirees: older workers, including some aged over 55, who have reduced their hours of work in an existing position or who have been newly recruited into a position that suits their needs for reduced hours of work and/or levels of responsibility. These employees are potentially more flexible in terms of the hours and types of work they are prepared to perform, for example, they may be more amenable to shift work, temporary employment, or positions with no possibility for further advancement. They are also attracted to the opportunity to access recreation leave purchase arrangements.

Employees with limited opportunities to advance

In Chapter 3 we noted the existence of a significant and potentially growing group of staff, typically located outside Canberra and working in the APS 4-6 range, who advance rapidly after joining the APS to a level just below middle management, but who can then expect to remain in the one position for a prolonged period, with a steadily increasing risk of reduced motivation and productivity.

The focus groups featured some members of this group who were working in smaller agencies or regional service delivery networks. Many reported that their opportunities for career advancement were severely limited and normally occurred only when an existing employee left the work unit. They also complained of a lack of clear career paths, insufficient access to learning and development opportunities, and a diminishing variety of work as they moved up the hierarchy.

Several focus group participants from outside Canberra expressed a strong interest in moving between APS departments to find stimulating new challenges, but reported that opportunities for them to achieve this were very limited. These comments are consistent with advice from regional offices of the Australian Public Service Commission, which have been reporting for some time that there is a high level of unsatisfied demand for mobility among APS staff located outside Canberra.

APS agencies need to adopt a strategic and dynamic approach to maintaining the engagement and productivity of these workers, not only by providing them with opportunities to move, but also through initiatives promoting learning and development and reward and recognition.


4.1 While expectations of increased mobility of younger workers in and out of the APS are yet to become fully visible in the available statistics, changes to APS employment arrangements have created the conditions for such a trend to emerge in the near future.

4.2 While many talented younger APS staff, including graduate recruits, will enjoy increased mobility, others will find themselves remaining in the same position for extended periods, either by choice, as they seek to stabilise their career while raising a family or pursuing interests outside work, or through lack of opportunity to move.

4.3 There is potential for frustration among staff-particularly in small agencies and in regional networks outside Canberra-who may feel they have insufficient opportunities for advancement or mobility, and who will need to be dynamically and strategically managed in order to maintain their engagement and productivity.

4.4 The APS is also likely to need to seek more experienced recruits from other sectors, who will be attracted by the prospect of secure employment, better conditions of service and/or work with reduced hours and levels of responsibility as they approach retirement.

4.5 All these trends indicate a breaking down of the traditional concept of an APS career as a steady advancement up a hierarchy of classifications and the emergence of a growing variety of possible APS career paths. APS managers will need to develop new skills to respond to changing environments, including a better understanding of the more complex employment backgrounds of potential new recruits, which may feature more dramatic shifts in career and levels of responsibility.

28 Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, 2000, 2002 & 2004, Labour Mobility, Cat. No. 6209.0, ABS, Canberra.

29 For example, Corporate Leadership Council 2005, The Effort Dividend, Driving Employee Performance and Retention through Engagement, Corporate Leadership Council, Washington DC.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018