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Asia capability of the current APS workforce

Asia's increasing economic and strategic importance requires a strategic approach to building Asia capability and a clear understanding of the breadth and depth of current capability.

Research by the Asialink Taskforce for an Asia Capable Workforce identified a broad set of individual capabilities critical to business success in and with Asia:

  • sophisticated knowledge of Asian markets and/or environments
  • extensive experience (more than two years) operating in Asia
  • long-term trusted Asian relationships
  • ability to adapt behaviour to Asian cultural contexts
  • capacity to deal with government
  • useful level of language proficiency.

Similar to the broad view of Asia capability adopted by the APS, Asialink's work indicates the requirement for a broad cultural capability, including having an understanding of Asian business, cultural, political, ethical and regulatory environments, and sensitivity to the impact of culture on business interactions.

Across the APS workforce, individual employees have a diverse range of Asia capabilities, ranging from language skills to Asian studies degrees or experience living and working in Asia.

These skills and experiences broadly point to the presence of, or a strong foundation for developing, the critical capabilities identified by Asialink. The next section examines the breadth and sources of Asia capability in the APS workforce, in particular looking at language proficiency, experience operating in Asia and academic knowledge of Asian environments.

Language skills

Language skills are an important component of engagement with Asia, making it easier to build relationships and conduct business. Submissions to the Asian Century Taskforce ‘widely noted that language barriers can produce a disconnect between cultures and hinder interaction across a wide range of areas, including sport, academia, business and people-to-people links’.21 The 2013 APS employee census (employee census) found the APS has a diverse range of Asian language skills, with 11% of employees reporting sufficient Asian language skills to perform work-related tasks.

The White Paper identified five initial priority countries requiring a country strategy due to their strategic, economic and political influence in the region. These were China, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. Table 8.6 shows APS employees with sufficient language competency to perform work-related tasks in a language spoken in one of these priority countries. Of the top five most spoken Asian languages in the APS, four (Mandarin, Hindi, Cantonese and Indonesian) are spoken in priority countries.22

Table 8.6 APS employees who speak languages of the five priority countries, 2013

Table 8.6 APS employees who speak languages of the five priority countries, 2013
  Chinese Indian Indonesian Japanese Korean
Employees (%)
Source: Employee census
All employees 3 3 1 1 <1
English speaking background 1 1 1 1 <1
Non-English speaking background23 14 17 2 1 <1

The language capability provided by employees from a non-English speaking background is significant. The majority of employees reporting Chinese and Indian language skills come from a non-English speaking background; 80% and 85% respectively. Conversely, 72% of employees speaking Indonesian languages and 81% who speak Japanese are from an English-speaking background and have acquired their Asian language skills outside of the family environment.

In seeking to reflect the diversity of the Australian community, the APS is likely to continue to be able to source Chinese and Indian language skills from Australians of a non-English speaking background. In 2011–12, more people migrated permanently to Australia from China than from any other country and the 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics Census found there had been more than 50% increase in the number of Mandarin speakers in Australia over the previous five years. Punjabi, an Indian language, is the fastest growing language in Australia.

While more work is required to quantify the APS's future Asian language requirements, Asian language skills will only be a critical requirement in discrete roles, for instance in some service delivery or international roles. As noted by the University of Melbourne23:

Notwithstanding the importance of language skills, they do not guarantee wider cultural competency in any particular culture, let alone across Asia. It is important to ensure that literacy goes beyond language and embraces cultural, historical and socio-political literacy.

For many APS employees, broader Asian literacy, for example knowledge of Asian environments and the ability to adapt behaviour, will be more job-critical than language skills.

Asian knowledge: Asia-related academic credentials

Credentials in Asia-related studies provide a solid platform for building Asia capability.

They also provide a diverse range of skills, including insights into Asian markets and environments, in-country living or studying experience and language skills. Five per cent of those responding to the employee census indicated they had tertiary qualifications in an Asia-related field in 2013. Encouraging Asia-related studies or recruiting individuals with Asia-relevant qualifications are possible avenues for growing Asian knowledge and insights across the APS.

Experience operating in Asia

Experience operating in Asia is a critical capability for business success in Asia.24 Although experience living or working in Asia does not automatically translate to a greater level of cultural competency (it is possible to live or work in a country without engaging in local society or culture), in many cases in-country experiences build some degree of competence across a range of skills, such as the ability to adapt behaviour to Asian cultural contexts, build relationships and/or acquire insights into Asian environments.

The employee census asked respondents whether they had experience working, studying, living25 or travelling extensively (more than three months) in Asia. Figure 8.6 shows APS employees with Asian experience by classification.

Figure 8.6 Employees with experience in Asia by classification, 2013

Source: Employee census


The distribution of employees with experience in Asia across classifications is a positive indicator of APS ability to achieve Asia-related business outcomes now and into the future. The pipeline of potential APS leaders with Asia experience is strong, with 30% of graduates and trainees having experience in Asia. This includes 10% graduates and trainees who have studied in Asia, 6% who have lived in Asia and 10% with experience working in Asia.

With research showing a strong correlation between business success in Asia and Asia experience at senior management and senior leadership levels26, the APS is also well placed for success in Asia in the short to medium term. In 2013, 34% of the Senior Executive Service (SES) reported experience operating in Asia.

While the depth of Asia capability and experience will need to continue to expand, the current depth of workforce capability provides a good foundation. The breadth of Asia capability in the ranks of the SES is encouraging and provides a strong foundation for achieving the White Paper's target—by 2025, one-third of Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries will have deep experience in or knowledge of Asia.


21 Australian Government, Submissions Summary: Improving Australians' Asia-relevant capabilities, Commonwealth of Australia,

Canberra, (2012).

22 In the employee census, respondents were asked to indicate ‘yes’ to this question only if they were born overseas and their first language was not English.

23 University of Melbourne, 2012, Submission to the Australia in the Asian Century Task Force.

24 Asialink, Developing an Asia Capable Workforce: A National Strategy, University of Melbourne, (2012).

25 Includes employees who were born in Asia and employees who lived in but were not entitled to work in Asia.

26 Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia and Asialink Survey, February 2012.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018