How a WA department’s graduate program came out on top of the nation

By Stephen Easton

Thursday March 21, 2019

The Western Australian Department of Finance has grabbed the top position in a national list of graduate programs, based on a survey of participants with a year’s experience in the workplace.

According to the head of the graduate program, Diana Morellini, the department has a “really good culture” and puts a lot of effort into training and supporting participants. She says the feedback from the compilers of the AAGE Top 75 Graduate Employers list was that Finance “stood out above the others” in all of eight criteria. This year’s applications close today.

The department surrounds graduate-entry staff with support from buddies, their fellow participants, supervisors,  and managers, so they hopefully don’t feel like they’ve jumped in the deep end.

“They really do step up, and I think the grads really feel that they’re valued,” Morellini told The Mandarin. “I think they feel that they’re not just admin assistants.”

Diana Morellini

Another key reason the department’s young employees rate their employer highly, she believes, is that it gives them meaningful work. “It has a lot of impact on the community and across the sector, and they feel that they’re involved in something a lot greater than just an agency, which makes them feel valued,” she said.

“We give them real responsibility and opportunities, where some other organisations perhaps might not do that … but just giving them real work to do and watching them grow, you find that they can really do anything with training and guidance and support.”

The training gives them confidence and involves sharing information and giving constant, honest feedback about their skills and development needs; if there’s an obvious area for improvement it is swiftly addressed.

“We put attention to detail on that immediately,” said Morellini, “so if there is an area that needs to be addressed, we’ll look at on-the-job or external training to help them to complete the job successfully.”

Recent Hayley Maconachie studied science and saw herself going into pharmacy, but after working in the field for a year, she realised it was not for her.  She now works in procurement at the department, and enjoys it a lot.

The graduate program manager says public sector agencies generally don’t do enough to explain what working in a government department is really like to students; in her view it’s the opposite of the stuffy, old-fashioned image. On the other hand, big companies often splash out on student recruitment.

“The public sector offers a lot of variety, perhaps in comparison to the private sector,” said Morellini. “The salaries are good, the work-life balance is amazing and the career opportunities and diversity outweigh what can sometimes be found in other organisations.”

Hayley Maconachie

Maconachie told us it was the Finance Department’s interviewing style that made her want to work there; she was initially attracted to an ad for Department of Health roles, and went to interviews with both in the end.

“When I was applying, I didn’t really realise how much emphasis was on your personality and your values as opposed to your [academic] background,” she said.

“I went into the process thinking, ‘I probably don’t have much of a shot.’

“I came out of the process thinking, ‘These are people who really value how you think and how you work with others,’ which I think is really important in recruitment.”

Why would the Finance Department want someone with a science degree? A few months after finishing her graduate year, Maconachie observes that people who studied subjects that seem unrelated to finance are likely to “think differently” to most applicants.

The department values a diverse workforce, Morellini confirms. “Having a whole group of different people with different backgrounds, you come up with so many different angles and look at things differently, and we found that that adds value,” she said

“If everyone’s the same, you come up with the same answer, and that’s not really where we’re at.”

The degree is obviously relevant but “not a big part” of grad recruiting, in her view – you can always teach people the processes, rules and systems, even specific skills, if they have a great set of personal attributes.

The graduate program also provides a good pipeline of people for the agency.

“I get loads of [grad project] proposals in every rotation, because everybody values the graduates and what they bring, not only their energy and their innovation but even their skill sets, and how they look at everything so differently and openly.”

Who else made the list?

Other public sector employers also did well in the AAGE top 75 graduate employers list.

Sydney Water was number five, followed directly by the Queensland Audit Office, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The next publicly owned entities in the AAGE list and their positions are as follows:

19. Queensland Treasury.

21. WA Water Corporation.

29. Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

38. Commonwealth Department of Finance

40. Queensland Department of Environment and Science

48. Bureau of Meteorology

49. Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department

55. VicRoads

56. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet

59. Australia Post

67. WA Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety

68. National Disability Insurance Agency

While that list is based on the actual experiences of participants in the above entry programs, various public service agencies also feature in another index run by GradAustralia, which purportedly measures the attractiveness of grad programs to current students.

It seems to favour Commonwealth entities and large blue-chip companies; not one state government agency is there.

PM&C offers grads choice of career streams for the first time

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet will offer a choice between three career streams for its 2020 graduate program intake when applications open on March 25.

As well as being 56 on the AAGE list, this year it was the 29th on the GradAustralia index of the 100 most attractive employers to current university students.

For the first time, PM&C’s graduate program will allow aspiring public servants to apply to work in the centre of the central agency — corporate and governance — or its Indigenous affairs line, a unique area that stands apart and is led by one of only two associate secretaries currently employed in the Australian Public Service.

Applicants can also nominate for the standard “generalist” grad program experience that involves rotations between all parts of the organisation.

PM&C explains the chosen few who specialise will complete “rotations within their chosen stream, as well as a ‘minor’ rotations in other parts of the Department to complement their skills” and go on to work in the relevant area.

Despite the demand suggested by its placement in the GradAustralia rankings, PM&C still wants to attract the best and the brightest, through YouTube videos featuring past participants and snapshots of “a day in the life of a graduate” at PM&C.

The federal Department of Finance’s famous YouTube effort tried attract applicants with the promise of readily available paleo pear and banana bread, among other things — dorky or not, the video had impact, which made it a favourite of The Mandarin’s founding publisher Tom Burton.

The best public sector grad programs, indexed

One might cautiously speculate that employers appearing on both lists are those where the expectations of students roughly align with the reality experienced by recent graduate employees.

These include: PM&C, Australia Post, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources. But a lot of other government agencies are more attractive to students than these at the moment.

The most attractive government employer according to the GradAustralia top 100 is the CSIRO at number 5. It is one rank above the federal Department of Education and Training, while Social Services was ranked 11th most attractive.

That list also suggests a lot of students these days see themselves in cloak-and-dagger careers; overseas espionage agency the Australian Secret Intelligence Service is at number 13, closely followed by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation at 14.

The Department of Health, Australian Bureau of Statistics and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also made the top 20 — in slots 15, 16 and 17 respectively. The military was 20th most attractive, the Federal Police 23rd and the Department of Defence at 26th.

Other public sector entities that made the GradAustralia list were the Australian Taxation Office at 30th, the Reserve Bank at 4th, DAWR at 49th, Australia Post at 54th and the Bureau of Meteorology at 64th.

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