APS workers staying in service longer, retiring later

By Jackson Graham

Monday November 15, 2021

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The retirement age of APS employees has risen from 59 years old to 61.5 years old in the past two decades. (Nastassia Yakushevic)

Workers are staying longer in the Australian Public Service and retiring later, with government-enforced staffing caps and an ageing population contributing to the trend. 

Some public sector commentators say historical challenges of retaining younger staff and superannuation encouraging mid-career workers to stay have played a role in setting the trend. 

The proportion of APS staff with 10 years or less of service has decreased in the past decade, employment data shows, with this proportion dropping to about 38% in 2021, down from 40% in 2018 and 56% in 2011.

Meanwhile, the retirement age of APS employees has risen from 59 years old to 61.5 years old in the past two decades.

An Australian Public Service Commission spokesperson told The Mandarin high employee engagement, changes in the size of the APS, and fluctuations in the number of engagements, were behind the numbers.  

“The mature age cohort has been the largest growing segment of the APS, and the APS workforce now spans five generations,” the spokesperson said. 

They said the trend brought benefits including retention of experience, reduced time and effort spent on recruitment, and experienced staff who managed surge workloads and mentored new employees. 

Former APS commissioner Andrew Podger said the government’s average staffing level caps introduced in 2015-16 were limiting the number of employees joining agencies and departments. 

“The ceiling is an added impact, as well as the ageing of the general population,” Podger said. 

Before the ceiling existed, the APS increased by 50%, or about 51,500 people, from 1999 to 2012. This large number of new engagements meant there were fewer workers who had served for shorter periods. 

ANU former Sir John Bunting Chair of Public Administration, John Wanna, said there were pros and cons with workers staying longer. 

You do get the experience,” Wanna said. “On the other hand, you don’t get new ideas and new approaches coming in.”

He said that in the past, superannuation also encouraged staff who had served in the APS for 15 years to stay in the service. 

“It’s non-transferable out of the public sector and bound them in,” Wanna said.  

But the APS Commission pointed out that a decline in employees in the Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme — which incentivised retirement at age 54 and 11 months — was actually a factor behind the average retirement age rising. 

Wanna said another challenge for the public service was losing younger recruits to the private sector. “Some young people are leaving after six months or a year. They put PM&C or Auditor-General on their resumes and they get a job in the accounting firms,” he said. 

Wanna argued retaining staff was not just about wages, with some graduates likely to stay if they felt they were making a difference. “When the graduates come in they want to change the world,” he said. 

He added that for many the public service brought job security unmatched in the private sector. “If you work on a policy and the minister doesn’t like the policy, you don’t get the bat,” Wanna said. 

The most recent APS Employee Census found high levels of engagement across departments and agencies, with 83% believing strongly in the purpose and objectives of their employer and 74% listing job security as their reason for remaining in the sector.


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