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5 Implications for future APS career patterns and development

The growing diversity of career paths among the APS workforce will continue to raise challenges in key areas.

Implications of a growing diversity of APS career paths

The discussion in preceding chapters suggests that the APS workforce of the future will feature a growing diversity of career patterns within a more streamlined classification profile. Career bottlenecks and glass ceilings have been a feature of the APS employment environment for a long time, particularly in regional networks. However, the streamlining and collapsing of classification structures mean workers are now tending to reach these points earlier in their APS careers.

It is therefore likely that a growing proportion of the APS workforce who are not performing managerial duties will be concentrated at a level just below that of middle management. As has already been noted, this group of staff will be heterogeneous in terms of their present and future career expectations and will include:

  • staff who are seeking to advance to management levels
  • career stabilisers
  • staff in their 20s or 30s who have joined an APS agency with the intention of gaining work experience and learning and development in one particular area as part of a portfolio career
  • experienced recruits (35 or over) seeking security and a work-life balance
  • employees in small agencies in (and outside) Canberra who are frustrated about their limited opportunities to advance or move.

This growing diversity of APS career patterns will present significant management challenges for agencies. As the MAC report Organisational Renewal (2003) pointed out, the task of managing this increasingly diverse workforce will require agencies to undertake more systematic workforce planning, including succession planning for key roles.

The analysis presented in earlier chapters indicates that APS agencies may also need to develop strategies to:

  • promote interagency and intersectoral mobility, especially for staff located outside Canberra and for potential future leaders
  • revamp base level recruitment if the tightening labour market leads to a reduction in the availability of graduate and/or experienced recruits
  • maximise the benefits of the continuing investment in graduate recruitment and training.

Staff mobility and leadership development

A more targeted approach is needed to the issue of mobility, one that places it in a broader capability development context. Agencies will have a number of roles and associated capability requirements that would call for staff to have wider exposure and a greater breadth of experience. For others this will not be an issue.

Accordingly, a range of approaches will need to be considered. In some areas, there will be scope for facilitating increased opportunities for some staff to move within and between agencies and sectors. In others, the development may be more internally focused. In some instances it will be necessary to be clear about the career opportunities of different roles so as to prevent unrealistic expectations.

In relation to some roles, a sound strategy may well be for agencies to focus on recruiting staff-such as the career stabilisers and semi-retirees described in Chapter 4-who are content to remain in the one job for a long time. Discussions with the Australian Customs Service and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service indicate that these agencies have been drawing a growing number of recruits to areas such as airport passenger processing and quarantine inspection from among these groups.

APS workers based in Canberra do not experience the same level of frustration about mobility and advancement as do their counterparts in regional networks. The head offices of more than 50 APS agencies are located in Canberra, providing skilled staff who join the APS through graduate programmes or through general recruitment at the APS 3-6 levels with many opportunities to vary their career experiences through interagency promotion or transfer, or by moving between different areas in a single agency.

The majority of these Canberra-based recruits will advance to EL 1 within five to 10 years and then, if they have talent and wish to pursue a career in senior management, they can have a reasonable expectation of being able to rise through EL 2 to the SES over the following 10 or so years.

The key concern in relation to the lack of interagency mobility among these staff is not that they are denied opportunities for lateral movement, but that flatter structures and accelerated rates of promotion limit their ability to access experience in other agencies before they advance to the leadership levels in their own agencies. Figure 11 and figure 12 in Chapter 3 show that, during 2003-04, only a small proportion of new EL 1s and less than half of new SES officers had worked in more than one APS agency.

The increasing narrowness of the experience of APS staff now moving towards and into senior leadership levels of the public service is a matter for concern, given the ageing of the workforce. The majority of the existing leadership group have had APS careers of 15 years or more and have worked in two or more agencies.

Potential strategies for broadening the experience of younger staff now approaching or entering the SES will be discussed in Chapter 6.

Base level recruitment

Previous chapters have noted the significant decline in employment at the APS 1-2 levels.

In 2003-04, only about one-quarter of all APS agencies recruited any staff at the APS 1 level and, of the 182 recruited across the APS, two-thirds were employed by just three agencies-Aboriginal Hostels Ltd, Centrelink and the Department of Defence.

Around half of all agencies recruited some APS 2s in 2003-04. However, once again, the majority of the 795 recruited were employed by just three agencies-the Department of Defence, the ATO and the Defence Housing Authority.

Only 12 of the 77 agencies listed on APSED recruited any non-graduate trainees in 2003-04, with 125 of the 318 recruited being located in the Australian Protective Service, which was excised from the APS on 1 July 2004. This data is consistent with the findings of the agency survey, which found only four out of 66 agencies offered New Apprenticeships or any other form of youth trainee scheme.

These three classifications (APS 1, APS 2 and trainee), plus graduate programme participants, accounted for over half of all APS recruitment of people aged under 20 and around one-third of all recruitment of people aged under 25 in 2003-04.

This data demonstrates the growing focus across all APS agencies on ad hoc recruitment of educated and experienced employees to fill vacancies at the APS 3 level and above. The agency survey found that only eight out of 66 agencies continue to engage in any form of bulk recruitment exercises at the APS 1-2 levels, and only 12 engaged in bulk recruitment at the APS 3-4 levels, the levels that are now effectively the base entry point in most agencies and at which close to 50% of new entrants join the APS.

APS agencies' greater preference for educated recruits who already possess some relevant skills and experience has been facilitated by legislative and regulatory changes that have devolved employment powers to agency heads and have opened up vacancies at all levels to applicants from outside the APS. It is also partly a consequence of award streamlining and job and organisational redesign, which has seen activities such as typing, photocopying and filing being integrated into the general duties of middle to senior level officers.

The trend across agencies to curtail base level recruitment has helped make the APS a 'graduate' workforce and has greatly reduced opportunities for juniors and other groups with lower average skill levels, such as Indigenous people and people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

It is possible that the projected tightening of the labour market discussed in Chapter 3 may eventually prompt agencies to consider introducing strategies for attracting, recruiting and educating school leavers and other younger and/or less skilled staff.

Role of graduate programmes

As was noted in Chapter 3, the statistical significance of graduate programmes relative to general recruitment at the APS 3-4 levels has declined since 1999 and- at approximately two-thirds across the APS after five years-the retention rates for graduate programme alumni are now lower than for new starters recruited directly into APS 3 and 4 positions.

Furthermore, the rates of advancement for graduate programme alumni are no better than for other APS 3-4 recruits, each group taking an average of around seven years to reach EL 1.

Despite these trends, many agencies continue to invest heavily in their graduate programmes, spending an average of $20,000 (in a range from $8000 to $33,000) per graduate on marketing, recruitment, relocation and training.30

Agency graduate programmes increasingly feature:

  • separate national marketing campaigns (the last remaining cross-agency collaborative general graduate recruitment arrangement being discontinued in 2005, leaving only the Indigenous Graduate Recruitment Initiative)
  • expensive and rigorous selection processes, often conducted by private recruitment firms, which include psychometric testing and assessment centres.

These increasing investments in recruitment processes are consistent with trends in graduate recruitment across all Australian employers.31 Agencies report that these investments deliver results in terms of increased quality of graduate recruits and, in some cases, higher retention rates.

However, given that the significance of the graduate programme relative to other recruitment channels has declined in most agencies, the benefits of investing so heavily to improve the quality of these recruits must be questioned.

In the agency survey conducted for this project, many agencies reported that an important purpose of their graduate programmes was as a mechanism for recruiting future leaders for their agencies. Three-quarters of agencies with generalist graduate programmes identified recruitment of future agency leaders as one of the two principal goals of their graduate programmes.

The data presented in Chapter 3 indicates that leadership development may not by itself be a convincing rationale for retaining agency graduate programmes in their current form. Of the graduates recruited by an agency each year, around half either left the APS or moved to a different agency within five years.

Even those graduates whom agencies are able to retain have only a remote likelihood of reaching the SES. Fewer than one-in-five current SES staff started their APS careers as graduate recruits, the only agencies that significantly exceed this average are the Treasury, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Transport and Regional Services and the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. In all of these the proportion of SES employees who were graduate recruits is around one-in-four-in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the proportion is more than one-in-three.

A recent report on graduate programmes prepared for the Victorian Public Service identified broadly similar rates of retention and advancement among their programme alumni as are found across the APS. The report concluded that Victorian Public Service agencies invest far too much money and effort in attracting and recruiting graduates, and give too little consideration to developing and retaining both the alumni of graduate programmes and the much larger group of staff with tertiary qualifications who enter the Victorian Public Service through general recruitment processes.

A key recommendation was that the Victorian Public Service strengthen training and development arrangements for tertiary-qualified staff who do not enter the service as part of the formal graduate intake.32

Certainly, there would seem to be a strong case for agencies to extend some of the key learning and development opportunities currently offered to graduate programme participants to other talented new starters in the APS, particularly those working in policy and programme development areas, to ensure they are adequately skilled in whole of government processes.

The results of the agency survey indicate that only around one-third of agencies make all training opportunities provided to graduates available to other new starters. In particular, graduates appear to be more likely to receive training in parliamentary processes, policy skills, interview techniques and career planning. Strategies for improving this situation are set out in Chapter 6.

Discussions with a range of APS agencies and other employers indicate that graduate programmes continue to provide a range of important benefits, including:

  • Publicity around graduate entry arrangements helps to raise the overall prestige of a career in a particular agency and/or in the APS in general, thereby attracting more recruits, particularly to Canberra.
  • Graduate recruitment is an effective mechanism for enlivening the APS workforce, bringing in an annual cohort of young, talented knowledge workers-many from outside Canberra-who can bring fresh perspectives to bear on the issues addressed by agencies.
    • Almost one-in-three agencies with generalist graduate programmes identified workforce enlivenment as an important rationale for their programmes.
  • Some agencies with a relatively higher level of graduate intake, for example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Treasury and, to some extent, the ATO, have been able to use graduate programmes as flexible base recruitment mechanisms, adjusted upwards or downwards in line with trends in the turnover of staff at middle and higher levels.
    • Almost half the 36 surveyed agencies with graduate programmes saw them as a flexible means of base level recruitment. However, only four of the 36 reported that they adjusted the size of their graduate intakes in response to the results of systematic workforce planning, with the majority stating that the size of the intake was largely determined by the immediate requirements of unit heads or by the size of the budget allocated to the graduate programme.
  • By bringing together groups of new starters to the APS for a period of intensive training, graduate programmes help to build useful networks across organisations and, in time, across the APS, enhancing interagency cooperation and promoting a whole of government approach.
  • Agencies that maintained graduate programmes during recruitment freezes and periods of downsizing (for example, in the late 1990s) have been able to avoid the significant skills shortages experienced by those that suspended their graduate programmes during those periods.

If graduate programmes do continue to figure prominently in APS agencies' recruitment strategies, the issue of retention is likely to become an increasingly significant one.

Chapter 4 discussed the potentially growing mobility of younger recruits to the APS, who may increasingly seek to enhance their careers by working in a number of different public and private sector organisations, possibly returning to the APS at a later stage when they wish to access conditions of service promoting a work-life balance.

A recent study identified similar career expectations among younger Canadian public servants, and concluded that it was possible that the best and brightest workers would increasingly choose to work in the public service only at those stages of their career or life cycle when it most suits them. They would do so, for example, to acquire marketable skills when younger or to achieve better work-life balance (when raising a family or when moving towards retirement).33

This scenario may require APS agencies to redefine their expectations in relation to some of their graduate recruits, whose career patterns may increasingly feature:

  • an important initial contribution to the APS when they are young and learning
  • then leaving the APS to gain skills and experience in other sectors and even outside Australia
  • a possible return to the APS to seek a greater work-life balance at a point when they are in a position to contribute the benefits of the skills and experience they have gained outside.

Other graduates may find it possible to achieve the variety of career and learning opportunities they seek while remaining within the APS. Such graduates are likely to be attracted and retained by factors such as:

  • the role the APS plays in addressing policy issues of major national significance (for example, global warming, water resources, the Asian tsunami, Medicare, company fraud, industrial relations reform and Indigenous affairs)
  • the opportunity to live and work in-and/or travel to-a wide variety of locations, such as all Australian cities, regional and outback Australia, external territories and overseas posts
  • the roles played by a wide variety of skilled professionals such as scientists, economists, accountants, lawyers and statisticians.

A further issue, noted in Chapter 3, is the need for APS agencies to keep up with trends in other sectors in the use of ICT and other measures to reduce the amount of mundane work and to improve workforce efficiency and productivity. The younger participants in the focus groups cited the administrative bottlenecks and duplication of processes within the APS as factors that might encourage them to leave at some future stage. Agencies will need to ensure they create an intellectually stimulating and rewarding working environment for new skilled recruits by using ICT and business process and work redesign.

Strategies for emphasising the opportunities for APS staff to pursue a portfolio career, and for improving retention of graduate and other skilled recruits, are presented in Chapter 6.


5.1 The breaking down of the traditional APS career path of steady progression up a hierarchy and the growing diversity of career patterns present significant management challenges for agencies.

5.2 Agencies are generally performing well in recruiting suitable staff, but will need to place a greater emphasis on workforce and succession planning and on strategic career development for staff, including development of future leaders, and increasing opportunities for mobility and career broadening for staff in regional networks.

5.3 The APS is better placed than most other employers to satisfy the increasing demand among younger knowledge workers to achieve a variety of working experiences through pursuit of a portfolio career. However, agencies will also need to pursue business process redesign and the more efficient use of ICT to remove duplication, administrative bottlenecks and mundane duties from the work performed by these staff.

5.4 Agencies may also wish to target recruitment of staff with little interest in moving or advancing (for example, career stabilisers and semi-retirees) to fill positions where there are limited promotion opportunities available.

5.5 If the labour market tightens as predicted, agencies may wish to revisit their past decisions to cease base level recruitment of juniors and unskilled staff. However, any such move is likely to require significant organisational and job redesign.

5.6 Graduate programmes should be maintained for several reasons, particularly the role they play in enlivening the talent pool available to move into the executive levels.

5.7 However, it is also important for agencies to extend some of the key learning and development opportunities currently offered to graduate programme participants to other talented new starters in the APS- particularly those working in policy and programme development areas- to ensure they are adequately skilled in whole of government processes.

30 Agency estimates provided to the Commission, Australian Public Service Commission 2003, Graduate Trends, Australian Public Service Commission, Canberra, p. 28.

31 Australian Association of Graduate Employers 2005, 2005 Australasian Graduate Recruitment Benchmarking Study, AAGE, Melbourne.

32 Department of Premier and Cabinet (Victoria) 2004, Review of Graduate Employment Strategies and Programs, Department of Premier and Cabinet, Melbourne.

33 Conference Board of Canada 2002, Building Tomorrow's Public Service Today, Challenges and Solutions in Recruitment and Retention, Conference Board of Canada, Ottawa.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018