Updating Results

Busting the myths about a job in public service

Erin Delaney

Careers Commentator

Public service has been maligned for far too long! The PR damage it’s received from neurotic parents urging their progeny to get a ‘nice, safe job’ and tv sitcoms showing dysfunctional teams like ABC’s Utopia, and it’s no wonder it has a bad rap sometimes.

There are a few well-worn myths people angst about whether to join the ranks of Australia’s payroll, so we’re going to dispel them.

1. Once you’re in the public sector, you’re there for life

It may have been true once upon a time that joining the public service would reward you with stability, a steady income and a gold watch after 50 years of service but it’s not necessarily the case today.

Government roles are divided into ongoing (permanent) and non-ongoing (fixed-term), and the latter are on the rise as the political landscape shifts and budgets are fattened or tightened accordingly.

This heightened sense of competition is making the public service more and more like the private sector, and skills you learn in the public service are increasingly valued in the corporate world: knowing how to engage with stakeholders or navigate complicated processes are invaluable everywhere.

Your experience in public service will be appreciated in the private sector and vice versa, so you can jump in and out of both throughout your career.

2. You’ll have co-workers that have been doing the same role for 30 years

The adage about geriatric George who’s been doing the same job since he was promoted from the mail room are probably true to some degree, as the older generations shuffle out into retirement and make way for new blood. But not entirely.

There are lots more opportunities for promotion and transfer across different agencies, as the public service has modernised over time to give people plenty of options — especially online — to find out about new opportunities to progress their careers and gain experience. There are people transferring in and out all the time so you’ll have very few, if any, lifers to contend with.

The kinds of skills required in many government roles, particularly policy roles, are quite general and are easily transferable across departments, so it is a relatively easy adjustment to make. In fact, many government departments actually promote interdepartmental opportunities to their employees and actively encourage career progression and diversity. This kind of experience across multiple departments and agencies is highly valued and makes future career shifts even easier.

3. Pay and benefits are poor compared to the private sector.

Most government departments are fairly competitive with the private sector when it comes to salary and benefits, especially when it comes to leave and overtime entitlements — unless you work in a sector like banking or mining, in which case you might notice a bit of a dip.

The difference is really noticeable when it comes to things like bonuses, which are far more likely to be paid in the private sector. Bonuses are rarely paid to public servants, even at the executive level.

The good news, though, is when we drilled down into our graduate survey responses to find out which sectors got the best value on a dollar-per-hour basis, public service won by a landslide. Not only do government roles offer great dollar-per-hour rates when compared to the private sector (particularly at the graduate level), but you will also get paid back for any overtime you work by receiving extra leave entitlements (we’ll go into more detail on this later!).

4. I won't get any real experience, I’ll just be shuffling papers

With such a diversity of departments across the government spectrum, there’s no shortage of different kinds of work available to suit. There are bound to be good and bad places to find yourself working, just like in any sector, and there is a lot of room for movement within public service.

The best part is some vacancies are reserved for internal applicants only – meaning you have a better chance of finding something you like once you’re already in, because you can apply for both internal and external opportunities when they arise.

The work itself is varied and interesting, depending on which department you land in.

A graduate from Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade we interviewed recently, Elspeth Toop, told us:

“I am in the second year of the DFAT Management Graduate Program and am completing the last of seven rotations working in the Financial Services branch. I’m involved in delivering finance training to officers who are about to commence on an overseas posting. Previously, I’ve rotated through Human Resources, Legal, Consular and also helped out in the Queensland State Office. I could never say that my time at DFAT has been dull!

I will be commencing a posting to New Delhi, India in 2017 as Third Secretary and Vice-Consul – a great honour.”

Most grad programs have a wide scope of variety, and if you keep your options open you might find an amazing adventure similar to Elspeth’s. 

Read all about Kanwal's experience as an Indian student, who became an Australian public servant.