The public sector encompasses those sections of the economy that provide governmental services and are (primarily) funded by public resources. In Australia, the public sector includes the three main branches of government (the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary); the military; the public healthcare system; the public education system; various infrastructural service providers; the members of the government (such as administrators and elected officials); and many other departments and agencies.
There are many roles within the public sector, from personal assistant to a local councillor to Prime Minister of Australia. In this sense, the phrase ‘public sector’ is unhelpful - it refers to who employs you, but sheds little light on what you do. Having said that, what all public sector employees theoretically have in common is that they are expected to serve citizens and enhance the state. They do this in a variety of ways, from performing crucial administrative functions (such as staffing community services centres) to overseeing public art projects and infrastructure initiatives. A healthy civic life relies on the contributions of various professionals, so the public sector is arguably the broadest industry in terms of the people it hires and the responsibilities it expects them to assume.
The Federal Government has 18 departments, which are collectively responsible for some 190 agencies, dealing with matters as diverse as fisheries research and native title. Historically, the largest federal government departments have been the Department of Defence, the Department of Human Services, the Australian Federal Police, the CSIRO, and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service. Individual state governments are also broken down into departments and agencies, with local matters addressed by elected Councils.
Approximately 40 per cent of Australia’s ~150,000 public sector employees is concentrated in Canberra, the nation’s administrative capital. The other 60 per cent are found everywhere, from Australia’s largest cities to its most remote communities, as well as on overseas postings.
Most government agencies that recruit graduates have regular and well-organised admission programs that take applications during fixed periods each year. The easiest way to learn more about the different programs, including application procedures and what will be expected of new
recruits, is to visit the Australian Government’s Graduate Programs website or gradaustralia.com.au.
Government jobs tend to be highly competitive. Given their popularity, you shouldn’t be surprised if the application process is unusually demanding. For example, to apply at DFAT, candidates must complete a detailed application letter, an online psychometric test, a written
test, a one-way video interview, a group interview, a second test, and, finally, an individual interview.
Employment options for STEM graduates in the public sector fall within two broad categories: roles that specifically require a STEM background, and roles which instead draw upon the generic skills developed during the course of acquiring a STEM degree.
In the first category, there are many public and government jobs that are filled by STEM graduates with specifically STEM-related responsibilities. It’s useful to note that there is a broad range of jobs for STEM graduates even within this sub-category of the public sector. You’ll find them advising on policy development for individual parliamentarians, reviewing urban development plants for the Department of Infrastructure, performing research at the CSIRO, and overseeing demographic studies for the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The second category of public service jobs is those that draw heavily on, say, highly-developed reasoning skills without employing you to perform a STEM-related activity. For example, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading has a reputation for attracting high-performing graduates from various disciplines to diplomatic and foreign policy based positions. This is due to their training in analysis, pattern recognition, and communication.
A career in the public service offers unparalleled stability – indeed, this, along with the attractive working conditions enjoyed by public servants, is a primary reason that people seek out public employment. As mentioned above, the public service is also very large and extends beyond Australia’s border to give it a presence in almost every country. As such, the possibilities for movement both upwards (via promotion) or sideways (by changing Departments or applying for foreign rotations) are endless. A career in the public service really could see you anywhere, from a press room in Canberra to a diplomatic outpost in Trinidad.
The average entry-level package for graduates in the public sector is $65,000 and the average industry hours are 37.5 per week. Furthermore, working conditions in public sector graduate jobs are highly competitive, with flexible hours, structured career breaks, job sharing, and mobile working arrangements.
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