Go to top of page

4 Graduate employment in the APS


The research into graduate employment was conducted in the context of the following issues:

  • a perception of declining retention rates among graduates in the APS, and whether this is associated with different expectations of the workplace from those of older employees
  • demographic changes which mean that the APS will face increased competition for new entrants into the labour force.


The research into graduate employment explored recruitment and workplace experiences and career expectations of graduates recently recruited to the APS, together with their views on agency management strategies, in order to determine the reasons why graduates are attracted to APS employment.

In exploring these issues, surveys were conducted of ongoing employees in the agencies covered by this study who were engaged in a graduate program in 2000 or 2001. Their views are supplemented by interviews with agency heads from participating agencies and the findings of agency questionnaires into human resource and workforce planning approaches to graduate employment.

The survey was conducted during the latter half of 2002 and therefore responses exclude those 2000-01 graduates who had separated during their first 18 to 30 months in the APS (approximately 300 graduates).

More detailed information about the survey methodology and response rates is at Appendix B.

The 2000-01 graduate intake to the APS was significantly shaped by the recruitment activity of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Of all graduates in the survey population, 63% were from the ATO. Where it is likely that survey outcomes will be so skewed by the ATO effect as to lose their usefulness to other agencies, ATO data has been separately identified. Where this occurs it is made clear in the text.

Key characteristics

Table 5 shows the key characteristics of the graduate population surveyed.

Table 5: Key characteristics of the graduate population
Key characteristics
Source: MAC Graduate survey
Median age 26 years
- Male 42%
- Female 58%
Median length of service 2 years
- Graduate employee 6%
- APS 1/2 1%
- APS 3 38%
- APS 4 23%
- APS 5 19%
- APS 6 12%
- Executive Level 1 or above less than 1%
Employment status
- Full-time 97%
- Part-time 2%


The majority of graduate employees nominated undergraduate degrees or honours (72%) as their highest qualification, with 15% nominating a postgraduate diploma or graduate certificate. The remaining graduates nominated masters, cadetships (still currently studying) doctorates and associated diplomas/certificates of technology as their highest qualification.

Main fields of study

Figure 27 below shows the six main fields of study for the graduate population (respondents were asked to nominate up to two). ATO data has been separated from the rest of the population because of the differences in the fields of study recruited to the ATO.

Figure 27: Educational qualifications of ATO graduates vs other

Source: MAC Graduate Survey

Recruitment issues

Graduate employees rated, in order, job security, interesting work and training provided as being the most important reasons for joining the APS (although the order of the last two was inverted for the ATO). Although graduates rated remuneration as an important reason for joining the APS, they did not identify it as one of the top five most important factors attracting them to APS employment.

Agencies reported good development programs, type and diversity of work, flexibility in conditions and career opportunities as the main factors attracting graduates to APS employment. Agency responses generally align with the reasons graduates nominated for joining, identifying issues related to interesting work and training and development.

Agencies should, however, also recognise that the perceived security of APS employment is a major factor attracting graduate employees to the APS.

Although agencies nominated the internet as the most effective medium for advertising graduate programs, the graduates surveyed nominated the newspaper (63%) as the most common source from which they learned of APS graduate employment opportunities, compared with 28% who found out via the internet.

Although agencies reported that they are satisfied that existing recruitment strategies enable them to recruit graduate employees of a high quality, they also identified barriers to effective graduate recruitment, including their ability to convey opportunities available, lack of profile, low remuneration and a shortage of applicants in some fields (especially economics and accounting).

Overall, although agency heads reported some difficulties in recruiting from some fields, they were not eager to revert to centralisation of graduate recruitment. They believed that the recruitment processes used allow them to find high quality graduates and appreciated their flexibility to target and attract graduates with particular skills and backgrounds.

Retention issues

Graduates were asked questions about their intentions to leave or stay in the APS, and their intentions to work in other APS agencies.

Only 24% of graduate employees said that they intend to resign from the APS within the next 10 years. Thirty-one percent intend to stay for the next 10 years, and 45% are uncertain.

Interestingly, those who intend to stay in the APS for the next 10 years reported wanting to work in the APS as an important reason for joining, whereas those who intend to leave were more likely to rate this reason as unimportant.

The older the graduate, the more likely the respondent was to report an intention to remain in the APS, peaking at 72% for those aged between 45 and 49. The younger the graduate, the less likely the respondent was to know whether or not they would resign.

Responses suggest a high level of intended movement within the Service, with 59% of non-ATO graduates indicating a desire to work in another APS agency at some stage in their career. This compares with 35% of ATO graduates who intend to work in another agency. The proportion of graduates with intentions to move within the APS varies markedly between agencies.

Nearly all graduates said there were factors encouraging them to stay in the APS, even if they said they intend to resign at some point in the next 10 years. By far the most important factor encouraging all graduates to remain in the APS (whether they intend to stay or leave) is the range of favourable employment conditions available (such as study leave and flexible arrangements). Other important factors encouraging graduates to stay in the APS are the relative job security and interesting work.

Interestingly, female graduates were more likely to regard favourable employment conditions as the main factor encouraging them to remain in the APS, while male graduates were more likely than female graduates to consider job security as the main factor encouraging them to stay.

Figure 28: Main encouraging reason for staying in APS of all agencies surveyed

Source: MAC Graduate Survey

Nearly all graduates said there were factors that were discouraging them from staying in the APS, including those employees intending to stay. While 21% of graduates outside the ATO identified interesting work as their main reason for remaining in the APS, 18% of the same group said that their main reason for leaving would be to seek more stimulating work elsewhere. The other main reasons discouraging graduates outside the ATO from staying are better pay elsewhere and poor management or supervision (although these were all less of an issue for ATO graduates than the rate of promotion).

Agencies were aware of the need to provide graduates with interesting work and related development opportunities. While poor management was not identified by them as an issue, quality supervision and in particular mentoring programs were rated as effective retention strategies.


Graduates were asked about their experiences, expectations and satisfaction with promotion to provide indications as to the significance of promotion as a retention issue.

Sixty per cent of ATO graduates and 37% of graduates from other agencies were dissatisfied with the rate of promotion.

Forty-eight per cent of ATO graduates had not yet received a promotion, compared with only 12% of non-ATO graduates. Accordingly, there is a disparity between the proportion of ATO and non-ATO graduates at different classifications. For example, 55% of ATO graduates were at the APS 3 level at the time of the survey, compared to 11% of non-ATO graduates. twenty-four percent of non-ATO graduates were at the APS 6 level, compared to only 5% of ATO graduates. This reflects the impact of recent downsizing in the ATO.

Of those ATO graduates who had not yet been promoted, 55% indicated an intention to leave the APS in the next 10 years. Dissatisfaction with the rate of promotion is also the most common main reason discouraging ATO graduates from remaining in the APS. This is not the case for non-ATO graduates.

Fifty per cent of non-ATO graduates reported that they had been promoted at about the time they expected, compared with 28% of ATO graduates. Twenty-four percent of non- ATO graduates and 15% of ATO graduates were promoted sooner than they expected.

Agencies recognised the importance of promotion in retaining graduates. They noted reduced opportunities for advancement beyond APS 6-EL1as a longer-term constraint on retaining graduates, but cited automatic advancement as a highly effective retention strategy in the short term.

Attitudes to the workplace

Graduates were asked about the importance they place on a range of workplace factors, and their overall satisfaction with these factors.

Graduates rated all workplace factors as being important, in particular, promotion opportunities, good working relationships, interesting work and the opportunity to utilise skills.

Graduates reported that they were generally satisfied with most workplace factors (with the exception of four). The factors with which graduates are most satisfied are generally consistent with their priorities: good working relationships, the provision of training and development opportunities, clear duties/expectations and interesting work. However, as the table below shows, the importance placed on each factor by graduates was higher than their level of satisfaction with that factor.

Table 6: Satisfaction and importance scores with workplace factors for graduates
Workplace factor Satisfaction score Importance score Net difference*

* Due to rounding the net difference may not exactly add to the difference between the two scores.

Source: MAC Graduate Survey

Promotion opportunities 2.85 4.63 -1.77
Opportunities to utilise skills 3.12 4.61 -1.49
Recognition for effort 3.08 4.47 -1.39
Provision to discuss career prospects 2.94 4.33 -1.38
Chance to be creative/innovative 2.84 4.15 -1.31
Interesting work provided 3.27 4.55 -1.27
Regular feedback provided 3.19 4.32 -1.12
Duties/expectations made clear 3.31 4.40 -1.09
Chance to contribute to corporate issues 2.93 3.88 -0.95
Appropriate workload size 3.22 4.09 -0.87
Provision of training/development opportunities 3.56 4.42 -0.86
Doing the type of work expected to do 3.10 3.95 -0.85
Good working relationships 3.85 4.63 -0.78

The factors with which graduates reported themselves dissatisfied are the opportunity to discuss career prospects, the chance to contribute on corporate issues, promotion opportunities and the chance to be innovative/creative. However, the overall data is influenced by recent downsizing in the ATO: when ATO responses are excluded, graduates from the remaining agencies are only dissatisfied with their opportunities to be creative/innovative. This level of satisfaction is consistent with the high proportion (76%) of graduates indicating they will stay in the APS or that they are uncertain of their career intentions.

Agencies and agency heads identified some challenges to retaining graduates, including: a limited ability to offer salaries competitive with the private sector; better opportunities in other agencies or the private sector; the generally higher mobility of younger people; and a perceived misalignment between the reasons why graduates join the APS and the reality of the job.


Eighty per cent of all graduates reporting they intend to leave the APS in the next ten years stated they would consider rejoining at some stage. This adds weight to the likelihood of an increasing role for lateral recruitment in organisational renewal.

Agencies reported a number of strategies which they use to to attract former graduates back to the APS, including direct approaches to individuals, recontracting senior technicians and alumni programs. Such strategies are best supported by maintaining information on past employees including through the use of panel arrangements. More generally, agencies use business planning processes to identify skill gaps and target general advertising.

Knowledge management

Forty-three per cent of graduates were certain that their agency or colleagues were passing on necessary corporate knowledge to them. Twenty-two percent are uncertain. A large proportion had no opinion one way or the other.

Agencies, however, reported existing strategies aimed at transferring knowledge to graduate employees as being largely effective. Strategies were largely based on on-the-job learning and exposure to a number of agency functions, including rotations, team-based work and special project work. Individually based coaching or mentoring suited to on-the-job learning supplemented standard induction and records management training.

The uncertainty of graduates suggests that agencies may need to give graduates a clear framework within which they can evaluate their progress in gaining corporate knowledge, particularly as the learning process is highly individualised. Such a framework might involve more structured training, both on-the-job and off-the-job, and more continued training (not just focused on the first year).

Succession planning

Graduate recruitment is an important component of succession planning, and agencies were asked about the strategies in place to develop graduates who demonstrate the potential to be future leaders.

Agencies report no structural impediments to bringing on selected graduates, though they do report some cultural barriers to 'picking winners'. Development strategies include accelerated work experience through job mobility, rotation and exchanges, and (in agencies where this is possible) international exposure.

Accelerated training is provided through direct involvement in projects and multidisciplinary team work, mentoring and senior management briefing, and development programs including the Career Development Assessment Centre and the Future Leaders program. Formal studies and study assistance are also made available.

AWAs are used by individual agencies to provide attractive remuneration and conditions of employment.

Agencies are, broadly speaking, confident of the effectiveness of their strategies to underpin succession planning.


Responses to the survey suggest:

  • Agency heads believe that graduate programs provide an important recruitment source.
  • Agencies and agency heads are generally satisfied with the quality of graduates being recruited, although they experience some difficulties in recruiting graduates from some fields. They find agency-based recruitment effective and do not wish to return to centralised graduate recruitment.
  • There is still a significant core of graduates who enter the APS and intend to stay.
  • Job security is the key factor attracting graduates to the APS and is underrated by agencies.
  • Agencies and agency heads reported some challenges in retaining graduates, including remuneration and the generally higher mobility of graduates.
  • A high proportion of graduates could be enticed to stay, if agencies concentrate on the workplace factors that are important to them: favourable employment conditions, job security and interesting work.
  • Promotion is an important recruitment and retention issue for the graduate population.
  • While graduates reported a gap between all of the workplace factors which were important to them and their satisfaction with those factors, non-ATO graduates were only dissatisfied with their opportunity to be innovative/creative.
  • A high proportion of graduates intending to leave within ten years would consider rejoining the APS and some of these are targeted by agencies.
  • Although agencies consider existing knowledge management strategies to be effective, many graduates are uncertain as to whether necessary corporate knowledge is being passed on to them and there is room for more structured and continuing learning programs.
  • There is some misalignment between the perceptions of graduates and agencies about recruitment and retention strategies.