APS is ageing fast, and its older employees most want to stay

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday November 27, 2018

Mature woman sitting in a car and use mobile phone

Key points:

  • Few agencies have strategies to avoid corporate knowledge loss due to retirement
  • Younger workers see stability in public service they can’t get elsewhere
  • Lifelong learning is important for the public service too

Today’s average federal public servant is female, 43 years old, an APS 6 in a service delivery role in Canberra. She’s been working for the APS for 11 years and never moved from her starting agency.

That’s one small part of what the 2018 APS census tells us about the 150,594 total employees of the Commonwealth, slightly fewer than on last year’s count. Digging a bit deeper into the data, released yesterday, shows the story is much more complex. The Mandarin will look at more of the individual trends over the coming weeks. Today, we’re looking at the age profile.

The age profile of the APS has been climbing, like the rest of Australia. The mean age of APS employees, calculated by the Australian Public Service Commission, increased from 41.4 years to 43.4 years over the last decade.

Older workers (50+ years of age) are significantly less likely to consider leaving the APS for other employment, and they are the age group most likely to want to stay working for at least the next three years. However, retirement is creeping up and very few agencies (11%) don’t have a strategy in place to deal with the loss of corporate knowledge due to retirement.

APS Commissioner Peter Woolcott notes that younger APS employees (under 30 years of age) would be exploring options for their own career diversification but aren’t due to risks to potential loss of their existing pay and conditions. Older workers however, cited the impact on superannuation or approaching retirement as stopping them from seeking other opportunities.

Another area where age correlated to divergent views is on how satisfied employees were with their remuneration. Younger employees in the census were more likely than their older colleagues to to agree they were fairly remunerated and were more satisfied with their non-monetary employment conditions.

While employment options for Australia’s young workforce is increasingly insecure, ‘gig economy’ roles and large underemployment,  younger public servants were more satisfied with their job stability and security.

Change has been a constant part of our workplace, said Department of Jobs and Small Business secretary Kerri Hartland at the IPAA ACT annual conference earlier this month, drawing attention to the needs of older workers to be skilled up in new developments. She added older workers being left behind was a world-wide trend:

“People who failed to renew, refresh, and diversify their skills are at greater risk of being left behind, potentially competing for lower skill jobs, and becoming redundant or sliding into an early retirement.”

Hartland challenged the APS to consider how it approaches lifelong learning for its workforce:

“Are we thinking enough about our workforce needs in the future in line with these trends I’ve outlined? Second, do we have enough flexibility and agility to adapt to changing demographics, and factoring life-long learning in the APS? Finally, are we looking enough in the mirror at the utilisation of programmes that we developed for the broader economy and applying it in our own departments?”

The government announced the establishment of the Collaborative Partnership on Mature Age Employment in the 2018–19 budget to encourage employers to create more mature-age friendly workplaces and reduce age discrimination.

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