Wednesday 19 June 2024

Career planning in the public service

This is a topic that you'll often overhear young grads talking about over brunch in a Canberra cafe, with conversations littered with terms like 'APS 6', 'EL 1', 'substantive', 'secondment', 'section 26', and so on.

People get obsessed with trying to 'crack the code' of career planning in the public service - and I think part of the reason is that there are no hard and fast rules.

Some people trying to race 'up the ziggurat, lickety-split' as it were, seeking out every promotional opportunity. The risk, though, is that they get promoted to the point where they're either incompetent and/or burn out. Others play the long game, staying at a lower level, and moving sideways, building a strong portfolio of skills, and a long-term understanding of how an agency works. In fact, my supervisor when I secured my first ongoing APS role at the APS 4 level advised me, 'Don't try to move up too quickly - you might regret it.' Of course, the risk here is that of 'getting stuck' and never breaking through past a certain level of responsibility (or pay!)

Other questions to consider including:

  • Is this role purely operational, or do I build the capacity to contribute to strategic planning and manage projects?
  • Do I want to work in a small organisation or a large one? In a small agency, there's more scope to use a broader set of skills and contribute across the organisation, whereas in a larger agency, you'll have a bigger team to support you and more opportunities for development and promotion.
  • Are there opportunities to manage and/or supervise other staff? Is this something that I want to do?
I think the trickiest thing about trying to plan a career in the public services, is that there are no promises. We no longer live in a time where years of doing the hard yards will be rewarded by promotional opportunities. Nor is it even a case that, if you come on board as a temporary employee and you perform well, they'll 'find a way to keep you'. Even ongoing employment isn't a promise - just ask anybody who's been in an agency that's had a restructure.

There are only opportunities, often appearing when you're not looking for them, and being open to jumping at them when they arise.

(Of course, for me, I'm having all these thoughts when I'm approaching the end of one job, and about to start a new one at a new opportunity. It surprises me when people say, 'Oh, we'll be sad to lose you!' when they possibly never realised that I was only in a fixed-term role to start with. I even had somebody say to me, 'Oh, but fixed-term doesn't really mean anything,' when for some staff, 'fixed-term' has meant being unemployed at the end of that term. So, I do feel a bit sad to be leaving 10 months after starting, but also, in this economy, I can't really afford to be unemployed.)

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