The public sector: a world of opportunity

Posted October 13, 2011, by Josie Chun
‘People have this idea that working in the public sector is all about boring jobs but it isn’t. I’ve had an extraordinary career doing terrific things that I believe in.’

Catherine Potter, Assistant Director, Indigenous Employment, Australian Public Service Commission

When you think of the public sector, do you still think of that old cliché of drab workers wearing grey cardigans? Well think again, because the public sector is full of young and dynamic employees who enjoy the many opportunities and benefits offered by government employment. With a job in the public sector you’ll have choice, flexibility and diversity, work that can take you all over the country or overseas, competitive salaries, continual development and career progression, and some of the best working conditions around.

The ageing of the workforce and upcoming retirement of baby boomers means that many new opportunities will open up for people wanting to enter the sector. ‘The next decade will provide young professionals with many opportunities to participate in public policy, gain experience, take on responsibility and establish an exciting career in the public service,’ says Camille Goodman, Legal Officer, Attorney-General’s Department.

So many opportunities

The public sector is the biggest employer in Australia, with the largest number of employees in education, administration, defence, health and community services. Jobs are available in every industry and at all levels, including everything from environmental management to communications, security, IT and social research. You could find yourself working for your local council, statutory authority, government corporation or state, territory or federal department.

Opportunities in the public sector are both plentiful and diverse. ‘There aren’t many limitations on the employment sectors you can work in. There are plenty of opportunities to work for government at all levels in metropolitan and regional areas. A number of my government colleagues have also worked for government departments overseas,’ says Georgina McCann, Manager, Policy, Department of Education and Training, Victoria.

The skills and training you receive in the private sector are easily transferable to the public sector, and vice versa. ‘I think the skills that you develop working in policy, like analysis, writing, research and stakeholder consultation, translate well to a variety of contexts within the public and private sectors, as well as internationally,’ says McCann.

And unlike some sectors, the public service provides plenty of opportunities for both women and the young: just over half of Australian Public Sector (APS) managers are aged under 45, 42 per cent of APS managers are women, and 35 per cent of senior executives are women.

The benefits of government jobs

Contrary to the stereotype of government drones who waste time and barely work, you will have to be prepared to work hard for the public service – but you will be well rewarded with almost unrivalled working conditions and benefits which include a good salary and leave conditions, flexible work practices, and professional development and progression.

‘The public sector offers job security and conditions of service that the private sector may not be able to match. Another advantage of working in the public sector is having flexible conditions of employment. For example working in DFAT allows me to combine a career with my family of two small children,’ says Lynda Worthaisong, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Carla Zub, Asset Manager, Department for Transport, Energy and Infrastructure, SA, agrees. ‘The life–work balance in the government sector is fantastic. Provided that I work the core hours of 10.00 am – 4.00 pm, I am able to work at my discretion as long as the deadlines are met. The flexible working arrangements also enable me to build up my hours so that I can have a flexi-day a month.’

Furthermore, many government departments support and encourage employees who pursue further study. ‘We have a very generous higher education program for career development,’ says Chris Saunders, Human Resources Manager at the City of Sydney Council.

Lisa Webber, Director of the Delivery Strategy Branch at the Department of Human Services, concurs and appreciates the many perks of her job. ‘Being supported to undertake tertiary studies is a perk and very generous leave provisions is another – long service leave is three months after ten years of service. Superannuation is also a generous scheme.’

Where to find government jobs

Most government jobs are publicly advertised in newspapers, on agency websites, job search websites and the relevant department’s website, and sometimes through recruitment agencies. 

All APS agencies advertise in the APS Employment Gazette, which is published weekly and can be accessed at

Each state also has its own jobs website, such as or

Selection criteria: nothing to fear

Most government job applications require not only a resume, but a ‘statement against the selection criteria’. The selection criteria will set out specific criteria for the position you’re applying for, and you will be expected to address each of the selection criteria in turn. You need to explain the relevance of your skills, experience, abilities and personal qualities as they relate to each criterion and the duties of the position. You also need to use specific examples from your professional experience, using the STAR approach: situation, task, action and result.

Answering these to the satisfaction of the selection committee is the only way to get over the line and make it to the next stage in the recruitment process.

‘It is a good idea to obtain as much information as possible about the position duties and responsibilities, work environment and the department by reading the information provided in the selection documentation, speaking with the nominated contact officer and accessing information available on the department’s website. This will enable you to be specific about how your skills and experience are relevant to the duties and responsibilities of the position,’ says Jan Blomfield, Head of Human Resources, Attorney-General’s Department.

It takes some skill to answer selection criteria effectively, and if you’re struggling, try using one of our templated selection criteria responses.

Get the right qualifications

For any professional specialist job in the public sector, you are going to need the relevant qualifications, whether that be a degree in public policy or accounting, or a qualification in administration, project management or community services. You should research the functions and responsibilities for the departments you’re interested in, and the specific educational requirements they demand. Ensure that their values, interests and desired skill sets align with yours.

Certain jobs require specific degrees, but many public service jobs are open to those with more generalist degrees. ‘While some departments require specific degree backgrounds and skill specialisation, the majority recruit from a wide variety of disciplines. Most departments accept applications from generalist and specialist degrees,’ says Carole Brown, Careers Advisor, Australian National University and National Vice-President, Australian Association of Career Counsellors.

‘Generally a mix of qualifications, experience, attitude about work and fit with the workplace culture is what we are looking for although experience and attitude are perhaps the most important. In an increasingly competitive environment for good people, hiring for attitude and training for skills is coming to the fore,’ advises Stephen Grieves, Director, People Management and Development, National Archives of Australia.

Graduate programs

For those starting out, graduate programs are one of the best ways to get your foot in the public sector door. Most federal, state and local government departments conduct specialist recruitment programs for graduates, school-leavers and non-graduates, as well as other interest groups. Examples include apprenticeships, youth programs and trades programs.

‘Our department has a specific recruitment program that targets recent school leavers. The aim of the program is to attract young people to the more junior levels of the service and then to provide them with work placement rotations, learning and development and tertiary study opportunities to provide them with a solid foundation for an Australian public service career,’ says Cheryl Watson, Manager of Human Resources and Communication, Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.

Vy Duong applied for the graduate program in her final year of university (studying a Bachelor of Commerce at La Trobe University) and secured a position with the Department of Finance and Administration in Canberra. Vy says the on-the-job training she received as part of the graduate program was both practical and useful, and she urges final year students to apply early for graduate programs so they don’t miss out.

‘During my final year of study, I attended career seminars and expos at university and obtained information on different graduate programs. Working in the public sector is very exciting and rewarding because you are involved in current and often topical issues. You are also exposed to higher levels of responsibility earlier and to unique work opportunities not available in the private sector. The challenges are numerous and avenues for career development are many and varied,’ says Vuong.

Josie Chun

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