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APS Review: Graduate Programs

Graduate programs provide recent university graduates with a structured entry into full-time

employment. They are common across both the private and the public sectors and typically

act as the key entry-level recruitment strategy for those organisations that run a program.

According to the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) in 2016, graduate recruitment

was just over 10 per cent of the recruitment the Australian Public Service (APS) undertook

that year1. A review of staff at all levels of seniority in the public service, including the Senior

Executive Service, would show that a number of existing staff started as graduates or entered

into the service via junior recruitment programs.

With their significant representation in the public service and the risk that graduates may

bypass external training and experience by remaining in the public service for the duration of

their career, well-run and appropriate graduate programs are crucial for the ultimate success

of the public service. The skills and experience of graduates completing the existing programs

will affect the capabilities and direction of the public service and will contribute significantly to

whether the public service remains fit-for-purpose.

The changing nature of the public service as an employer of choice for university graduates 2

has resulted in a large number of applicants attempting to be hired for what is generally a

small number of roles. The result has been an increase in the quality of graduates entering

the public service but also a greater need to deliver programs and workplaces that addresses

the needs of the graduates or risk losing the talent to other employers.

In seeking to retain the graduates recruited as the supposed best candidates, the APS must

consider whether the programs will need re-development to ensure that the graduates are

able to meet the new challenges whatever the future holds and the APS best serves their


This submission suggests that graduate programs are a useful and important facet of the

public service, but that current programs may not be preparing graduates for the future of the

public service or empowering them to shape the service in meaningful ways. The programs

could be better administered from a high level to enable higher-order planning and

management of the public service recruitment and the key skills needed for the future. The

programs are not currently based around skill-thinking, that is, what the graduate is good at

and what they want to be better at. Instead they are based around exposure learning and

basic training to meet the minimum expectations of junior APS staff. A program than enables

skill tracking via mobility and training will push the public service forward into the future.

The graduates that have input their ideas, insights and recommendations into this submission

would like to thank you for the opportunity to submit to the panel.

1See stateoftheservice.apsc.gov.au/2016/09/graduates-future-leaders-of-the-aps/#1

2See GradAustralia.com.au – A graduate employer ranking website with provides a list of the most

sought-after graduate employers based on surveys of graduates.
Overarching features of existing graduate programs

The details of Graduate programs are department specific and as a result, are not consistent

across the Public Service. Programs across the APS regularly have a number of similarities:

 Recruitment processes run between approximately March and October, with
applicants required to apply via the department’s website.
o Applicants will go through ‘rounds’ of elimination where the department reviews
the applications for different pre-conditions or skills. Common pre-conditions
include a university degree where the applicant received a credit average at
minimum, are an Australian Citizen and have recently graduated from
university (generally within 3 years, although this is occasionally subverted by
departments, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade).
o The final round typically involves an assessment centre where the applicant is
required to attend and take part in a number of activities and/or in-person
interviews for the role.
 Successful applicants will complete a security clearance process prior to commencing
at the department.
 The departments support the Applicants to move to Canberra and generally
commence in February of the year after their application process.
 The Graduates in the program are provided an assortment of training in skills relevant
to their work and, in reasonably sized departments, will rotate into different teams
within the department.

Departments may recruit anywhere between 3 and 300 graduates for any single intake, based

on that departments specific needs. The programs typically run between 9 and 24 months.

Purpose of Graduate Programs

Recommendation 1: The APS should articulate the purpose of the graduate program as

preparing graduates to be the future leaders of the public service. In turn, they must

make decisions on the running of the programs with that clear goal in mind.

Graduate programs are run to recruit staff to the APS but there is no singular articulated

purpose behind the graduate programs that helps to set the agenda for the program or give

graduates a clear idea about what the program is looking to provide to them beyond entry-
level employment.

Currently, one might define the purpose of the graduate programs as a tool to provide

departmental teams with additional hands that do not count towards their ASL caps. Others

might define the program as a way in which to learn about all facets of work within that specific

department. Others might see the program as a tool to prepare graduates for careers as

dedicated, long-term public servants.

A more focused and useful purpose is that the program should be preparing its participants to

be future leaders of the public service. This would be, above all else, the APS valuing

empowerment of its junior staff and establishing the leaderships at all levels principal as a core

to the values the public service respect and cater for. Training and recruitment should be

structured around those values. Leadership can be defined broadly and nuanced out

depending upon individual staff and their goals. Facets of leadership may include creativity
and innovation, respectful engagement with others, consistent and constructive work,
teamwork and vision making. Current feature of programs does not serve to lead back to

establishing graduates as leaders should be removed or rethought

The current understanding of graduate programs seems to revolve around the assumption

that graduates are relatively inexperienced, young staff who are looking for long-term

employment in the public service, but those assumptions are being challenged by the

changing nature of the recruitment process of the program. As the programs become more

competitive, the graduates that are recruited are more experienced and skilled than previously

cohorts. Graduates now have years of work experience in multiple industries, are highly

educated often with post-graduate qualifications and many are made multiple job offers by

both the public and private sectors. As graduates become more skilled and specialised, their

expectations on training and opportunity will likewise grow. As graduate programs are a

specialised entry format into the public service, there is an expectation that the program will

offer training or opportunities that are pitched at a level appropriate to their educational and

professional backgrounds.

The current level of experience of graduates means that programs need to address whether

they are simply providing employment with basic training to complete the job of an APS3 staff

member or whether the program is looking to skill the graduates beyond their immediate

expected staffing level.

Alternatively, it might be time to consider whether “graduate program” remains an accurate

description of the program given the large number of graduates with higher degrees or

significant work experience. The APS could consider rebranding the graduate program as a
“Fast-track” program which aims to attract high performing candidates who want to enter the

public service as a cohort but might already have work experience, Masters Degrees and

PhDs. The Fast Track could be supplemented by other entry-level programs that aim to recruit

fresh graduates, and other applicants from diverse or atypical non-public service backgrounds
(see Recommendation 6).

Recommendation 2: The APSC should require departments to undertake regular

reviews of Graduate programs to ascertain whether graduates are gaining the value

from the program it set out to create.

The APSC should have a role in ensuring departments are appropriately reflecting on their

programs and whether they are achieving their stated purpose. Though departments may

currently undertake some form of review, anecdotal evidence suggests feedback is not always

collected formally and fails to be acted upon. As a result, it is recommended that surveys and

feedback forms are prepared as well as a regular and consistent collection of data on

Graduate trends to determine if insights can be ascertained about the graduates exiting the

programs or leaving the public service thereafter.

It should be required that all graduates fill in any survey or feedback form prepared by

departments or the APSC to ensure the programs are receiving a holistic perspective on their

programs, rather than a vocal majority’s perspective. The APSC’s annual survey already

provides an opportunity for broader feedback to be collected and analysed but this can be built

on with customised feedback opportunities.
Recommendation 3: Departments should seek to come together and share best

practice in the delivery of graduate programs

Though departmental officers involved in the administration of graduate programs might

currently share information between each other on best practice behaviour or standards for

graduate programs, there doesn’t appear to be co-ordinated effort to develop a sharing

platform with staff on attracting the best talent, good recruitment habits, well-regarded training

or other features of the department.

Governance of Graduate Programs

Recommendation 4: The APSC should take a greater role in setting minimum

requirements for graduate training during the program.

As previously mentioned, departments largely choose to run their programs according to their

respective needs but that fails to account for a broader need for consistency across the public

service and the development of certain generalist skills.

Currently, the APSC oversee some optional Graduate training available to departments. The

training in recent years has included a panel discussion of senior public servants, a
‘mentorship day’ where senior public servants speak on their experiences to a crowd, and a

GradHack day in which graduates create solutions to existing public service issues., though

ideas from the day were not followed up or implemented.

The existing training prepared by the APSC is insufficient and doesn’t skill graduates in any

systematic and consistent way.

To ensure that the broad cohort of Graduates are prepared to meet future challenges and

ways of working for the public service, the APSC should be undertaking a review of the future

work experiences needed of public servants and plan out a schedule of training that

departments should be required to enrol their graduates in. Expected training might include:

 A writing course covering at minimum brief writing for Ministers
 The cabinet process
 Excel training that covers up to intermediate skills on graphing and formulas
 Understanding statistics and preparing statistics
 The use of census and other statistical data on Australian citizens
 Soft skill use including making yourself heard in a team meeting, speaking confidently
to a room
 Short course sessions concerning economics, taxation, the legal system and
interpreting legislation, coding and the policy cycle (including best practice policy
thinking around consultation, co-design, implementation and building evaluative
frameworks into programs).

In this manner, graduates will have the opportunity to be consistently skilled across the subject

matter expected of public servants but departments will still be able to support their graduates

to complete more specialist training for that department of based on the needs of the

Recommendation 5: Departments running Graduate Programs should create a body of

Senior Executive Service, Human Resources Staff and Graduates who have completed

their program within the last few years to administer the details of the program.

Currently, graduate programs are not necessarily managed by any kind of board or group of

staff beyond the HR department. This fails to take account of the varying needs of each

department as well as the needs of the Graduates in the program. The different

representatives should balance consideration of experience about the needs of the public

service, the graduate perspective on what worked and HR’s ability to facilitate the

determinations of the body.

If departments have separate graduate governance groups and graduate areas in HR, they

need to be well integrated. Multiple graduates found their governing groups were unaware of

issues or processes going on with HR and that there was little discussion with the current

graduates on the program. The lack of transparency in the decisions made by existing bodies

does not give graduates an opportunity to put forward submissions or ideas.

Recruitment and Diversity of Staff

Recommendation 6: The minimum requirements for university education should be


As stated before, the core minimum condition required by the graduate program for entry is a

university degree. This requirement for tertiary qualifications should be reconsidered.
Recruiting from a limited pool of tertiary qualified candidates means missing out on a larger

group of people lacking these qualifications, but who may still have the skills required for an

entry level position. Removing this restriction, the program would be able to tap into a number

of individuals that may not have completed university but have attained other qualifications
(e.g. TAFE qualifications) or did not have the opportunity to attend a tertiary institution for a

variety of reasons including family commitments, economic instability or systemic

disadvantage. Requiring a university education is a false measure of capability that should not

exist if skill and potential is placed at the forefront of the recruitment process. Opening up

graduate recruitment to anyone who can demonstrate the necessary skills will only increase

the talent pool and lead to a more equally representative public service. Departments can

support staff long term into completing formal qualifications if they so choose (see

Recommendation 12).

It is also worth considering whether graduate programs should remain the primary entry-level

recruitment program, as it can be expected that even if non-university graduates were eligible

to apply for the program it is unlikely they would proceed through all the recruitment rounds

en masse. We need to consider whether affirmative measures or alternative entry-level

programs are needed to attract talent from diverse cultural and education backgrounds, from

different sectors, or socio-economic circumstances. Some programs already exist for

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander applicants but these could be expanded.

Recommendation 7: Recruitment practices and criterion need to be reconsidered to

better attract and retain a more diversely educated group of graduates that reflect the

versatility and make-up of the Australian public and account for the future needs of the

public service, specifically data analytic and software development expertise
The general public often feel that Canberra and public servants broader are out of touch with

the wider community and part of that likely has to do with the diversity of the people that work


In 2016, the graduate recruitment statistics indicate that approximately 25 per cent of those

recruited had studied law, approximately 16 per cent had studied economics, commerce and

accounting but only 0.3 per cent had studied education and only 2 per cent had studied

mathematics and statistics.3 These figures indicate that we have overrepresentation and

underrepresentation of different thinking and skill entering the public service at junior levels.

There also remains a constant underrepresentation of LGBTQI people, those with a disability

and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in all levels of government. Great strides

have been made to ensure the public service now has an approximately equal representation

of women to men, but more needs to be done to ensure they are present in senior roles.

Departments should be seeking to introduce better systems that enable a wider number of

people from diverse groups to be hired such that departments become more representative of

the people they are seeking to impact and more balanced in their schools of thought and


Yet, this constraining must also be weighted with the developing skill requirements for the

coming decade. Those hired in the public service should also possess the skills required for

the future. Research by McKinseys indicates that 30 percent of all occupations of all activities

are technically automatable, based on current technologies.4 This level of automation is only

expected to increase over the coming decade. As we move towards a more data-rich world,
we will need to be focusing graduate recruitment to attract people who are skilled in data

analytics, data collection and software. Programs run the risk of continuing to recruit graduates

that lack the ability or the inclination to learn more about data and IT solutions. This seems to

be in part due to the continued expectation that graduates need to be generalists and more

skilled in writing or humanities-based skills. However, this fails to account for the growing need

to be better at evaluative reviews of programs and develop programs based on data insights.
Introducing these skills into the public service now will help the public service to discover new

ways of thinking and better adapt to a fast changing world and prevent long term challenges

in avoid the challenge of mass reskilling staff into non-automatable skills.

Currently, the public service cannot envision the utility or purpose of certain training around

data and software capabilities, but once trained people are likely to discover new ways they

can go about creating or changing standard practices to enable the service to be smarter and

more agile.

Recommendation 8: Recruitment processes need to better manage the recruitment of

staff from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

The graduate programs are not currently recruiting from a diverse class background insofar

that low socio-economic students are regularly locked out of the program because they have

not got the pre-requisites for the program (see recommendation 6 regarding qualifications) or

3See stateoftheservice.apsc.gov.au/graduate-data/
do not believe they will be successful if they apply to the program. The methodology of

recruitment and how one advertises the programs may dissuade low SES students from

applying. Targeted recruitment at certain universities and reconsidering the phrasing of certain

graduate applications away from appearing ‘elite’ may assist in enabling more students to

apply to graduate programs.

Socio-economic status remains one of the hardest determinants to account for and manage

in any recruitment system and remains overlooked. It is easier to identify and counteract other

representative challenges throughout recruitment, such as gender, disability and Aboriginality.
Low SES markers often are harder to identify and manifest as a less impressive resume or

experience portfolio.

Competition for a position on the graduate program has enabled recruitment staff to be more

selective with the experience and qualifications of the graduates. The unfortunate result of this

is the heavy presence of graduates with privileged backgrounds who had the means and time

available to undertake unpaid or poorly paid internships, had connections to finding work

opportunities in well-known businesses as well as the opportunity to attend some of the best

schools across the country and abroad. There remains concern in graduate cohorts that facts

like which university you attended and the names of businesses you worked for are a driver

behind recruitment, despite that not necessarily being a formal means of determining people’s

skill and appropriateness for the program.

The inherent flaw of the current recruitment techniques is that the recruiters look at who a

person is at the date of interview, rather than who they could be with training or what they

have managed to overcome to develop the opportunities present on their resume.

Programs would benefit from considering other methods of accounting for low SES

backgrounds. Some universities quantify disadvantage by the postcode or area of high school

and are given extra ATAR points to enter university to somewhat counteract their

disadvantage. A modified version of this may assist in boosting the profile of low SES

graduates. A ‘contextual recruitment system’ similar to that produced by Rare Recruitment

and used in the UK for a number of law firms might assist in identifying individuals that

otherwise are missed in the process but would be exceptional candidates for graduate


Recommendation 9: The public service needs to balance the need between generalists

and specialists better and do so by placing graduates for applicable skills and interest

in doing so on specialist career trajectories.

There is a trade-off between generalists and specialists. Graduates and public servants will

be expected to fill many roles and be across bureaucratic process, but at the end of the day

they will be asked to advise on particular topics or complete specific skilled tasks. These topics

or tasks can be highly technical and require expertise. Staff are also expected to have a strong

ability to write competently, work in teams and manage deadlines.

Expert positions are uncommon and vary by department. A lack of room for specialists

encourages the creation of new agencies, e.g. the Infrastructure and Project Financing

Agency, or the use of consultants to produce work which is counterintuitive. Graduate

recruitment and the program holistically can help to engage specialists or put them on career

pathways that will enable them to become specialised.
Many graduates found that while there is frequent reference to them being generalists, in

practice areas look for graduates at the end of the program with certain skill sets. I.e.
Economics graduates will be headhunted for economic roles. The public service needs to pre-
empt the needs of the department and match people with both an ability to undertake general

public service work but also specialise in certain topics or complete specific tasks.


Rotations are a way to move graduates between areas within a department. There is a trade-
off between sampling different areas, and building human capital and trust. The more areas a

graduate visits, the greater understanding they have of their department and where they might

wish to end up. The longer a graduate stays in an area, the more human capital they are able

to develop and the more they will earn the trust of that area.

Recommendation 10: Preferencing systems are important and should be retained but

should be bolstered by analytic data and skill-matching.

Graduates should be able to preference the areas of the department they want to work in.
These preferences should be taken seriously and handled by an algorithm. The current

method of sorting preferences requires staff to ‘eye-ball’ over 100 different preference

rankings. Graduates spoke of people preferencing certain areas low on their interest list but

are sent there despite other graduates having preferenced the area highly. If the purpose of

the program is to give graduates a pathway to skilling that will cover an initial generalist

purpose with opportunities to develop into specifically skilled staff, then preferences should be

taken seriously to enable those outcomes to come into fruition.

Rotations should be reviewed for the specific skills the graduate is expected to receive as well

as whether the graduate has spent significant time in other rotations gaining those skills. This

should link into Recommendation 12 and 14 below. Overlap should be permitted where the

subject matter covered in that rotation is considerably different but graduates should be moved

to different teams where they get a wide berth of skills for their initial introduction to the public


Recommendation 11: There should be a greater emphasis on establishing streams of

graduate programs.

There is scope for having streams within graduate programs. Existing streams are typically

the legal stream, the policy stream and the IT stream for graduates with those capabilities and

interests. Graduates generally see this as a positive means of ensuring that people interested

in pursuing those dedicated skills can do that whilst avoiding other staff, who have no interest

of pursuing certain work, from ending up in those areas. One graduate spoke of being sent to

an internal accounting area with no skills or interest in accounting, so was effectively

underutilised for 6 months. This is a balancing act, as graduates may have pre-conceived

notions about what they will and will not like, but this can be managed and shaped by the

matters raised in recommendation 12.

Professional Development

Recommendation 12: Graduate programs should move towards a customised journey

process for graduates rather than a one-size-fits-all program.
Although resource intensive, having a customised program that views individuals as

individuals with different interests and goals would set apart the graduate programs from

regular entry-level positions and create a greater incentive to apply and invest long-term in the


A customised program would look at speaking to graduates early into the recruitment stage

about their goals, interests and existing skill set, with a mind to seeing whether they would fit

into the department and its future. Upon recruitment, short one-on-one sessions should be set

up with human resources or the SES board about what goals they have and where they want

to be developing. These conversations may produce important insights into expectations and

interests that can be factored into analytical rotation preferencing or training for the individual.

The existing training and experience of graduates should also be considered in the setting of

training. With more and more specialised and skilled graduates entering the public service,
whether the training on offer addresses the needs of the graduates and the skills they are

lacking needs to be reviewed. Training will also be a very individualise matter with certain staff

interested in completing certain formal education and others not having any idea about what

training they could benefit from. The personalised take on training would also help to ensure

staff are moving in a career direction that they are interested in and which offers them the

most stimulation and learning.

HR should check in with graduates about their rotation. Rotations can be difficult to predict

and feedback early on as well as after is important. Having a check-in session early into a

rotation enables HR to see how the rotation is going, if the graduate has adequate work and

if the expected skills are what is being provided. Many graduates spoke of facing difficulties in

their rotations but struggling to air these until after their rotations were completed or when

doing so, HR not being sure how to best assist the graduate without making their situation

more challenging. Discussions of rotations after they are completed should also occur

consistently and would provide HR with an understanding of the rotation start to finish. It gives

them an idea of what graduates will are regularly asked to do and what they are likely to learn.
This will be useful for future rotations and homing in on the rotations best suited to graduates

looking for certain learnings.

Recommendation 13: Mobility of graduates, as well as the public service broader,
should be seen as a high priority.

There is great benefit to short term mobility placements throughout the APS and the private

sector. This serves to increase both private sector and public-sector skills without losing staff

to other opportunities. In addition to picking up skills between departments, people pick up

more institutional knowledge and networks that better connect staff and break down

departmental silos.

The APS is currently moving towards a better, more mobile service with staff prepared to move

around but there is still work to be done. The APS statistical bulletin states 72 per cent of

public servants have only worked in a single agency, 18 per cent for two, and the remaining

10 per cent for three or more.5 The APSC’s mobility data has 60 per cent of APS, 63 per cent

of EL and 57 per cent of SES stating workplace mobility should be more common in their


Though mobility transfers are often seen as a prestigious opportunity earned by middle-
management staff, it should be more of a requirement for development, and done at all levels

to ensure the public service remains connected. Graduates having the opportunity to

undertake placements has the benefit of investing early in a whole-of-government perspective

and normalises a practice they are likely to view favourably as they become more senior and

are asked to facilitate mobility opportunities for others.

Recommendation 14: A badging system for training should be introduced across the

entire public service where, if minimum requirements for certain competencies are

met, staff are badged with certain levels of skill or expertise.

Hard and soft skills can be a challenge to build but having both formal and informal ways of

certifying that you have achieved something could take the public service to a new level.
‘Badging’ is online record of achievements, tracking the recipient’s communities of interaction

that issued the badge and the work completed to get it. Badges can be laid out on a stream

basis with an end destination to where you are considered a specialist in certain skills.

Badging is still a relatively new concept but a number of organisations and institutions,
including US community colleges, US Department of Veteran Affairs, NASA and the New York

City Department of Education, have been adopting different types of badging system and are

a developing tool that track skilling across organisations. More information can be found online

at openbadges.org or any number of other badging developers and organisations.

Streams of training can develop from badging, enabling generalists to become specialists in

areas of relevance. This would enable staff to take authority over programs or projects not just

on their seniority but also on their capabilities and thereby reduce the rigid hierarchy that

antiquates the public service.

Graduates should be required to meet a certain number of generalist competencies within

their graduate program and should set out to work with the graduate program opportunities to

meet their interests in skills by identifying streams or badges they wish to obtain.