Finding employees with in-demand skills harder during pandemic, APS agencies say

By Jackson Graham

January 31, 2022

woman in red suit sitting on a white cahair
Long-standing job vacancies in the Australian Public Service. (Africa Studio/Adobe)

Long-standing job vacancies in the Australian Public Service have been harder to fill in the past two years, according to some agencies feeling the strain of a tighter labour market. 

The shortages are stretching employers broadly across Australia, not just in the public sector, but federal agency leaders say roles less likely to be in-house before the pandemic are even more challenging to recruit for now. 

The qualifications in demand span specialist IT and digital and data expertise, with one agency of about 400 staff telling The Mandarin there were 30 to 40 roles to fill. 

Others highlighted similar pressures or said conditions had stayed the same in the current job market. 

For those wrestling with hiring, competition with the private sector is part of the challenge. But agencies believe emphasising flexibility, workplace culture and a wider mission to serve the public interest are parts of the solution.

Australian Digital Health Agency acting chief Paul Creech described the job market as “very competitive” and said the agency was particularly exposed to losing staff to the business sector. 

“They’ve got that one-on-one relationship with that private sector. They get really good insight and vice-versa; [businesses] get insight into the talent of our people as well,” Creech said. 

“You’re constantly managing that tension … [staff] can see the pasture is greener when it comes to remuneration especially.” 

The agency has enabled digital prescriptions and delivered online PCR test results during the pandemic, growing its workforce by around 10%, but it currently has up to 40 vacancies. 

“In an agency that’s 400 people, that can be quite a gap,” Creech said. 

Ty Emerson, acting deputy chief executive at the Australian Skills Quality Authority, said recruitment of IT, data and digital expertise had been challenging prior to the pandemic and “amplified by COVID and lockdowns”. 

The result is that the agency relies partly on contractors, Emerson said, but has also succeeded in recruiting in-house staff because of flexible working conditions during the pandemic. 

A parliamentary report last year flagged that around 10,000 ICT contractors were employed in the APS — about the same amount as employed permanently. 

At APS agency the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Authority, recruitment is no more difficult during the pandemic than usual, a spokesperson says. 

They added that the agency has spruiked the benefits of working for a small agency and highlighted the reasons its staff choose to work there as part of its recruitment. 

ASQA takes a similar approach, Emerson says, recognising that being an employer of choice is not just about remuneration but also about flexibility and managers appreciating how employees contribute to a public good. 

“You can share your skills and contribute nationally to a broader economic recovery, you will have career progression and move across the APS, but at ASQA you can also be located anywhere in Australia,” he said. 

“We have had more success in the recruiting of IT areas when we recruit outside of Canberra. So we have been able to maintain and keep skills in IT because we have taken a more flexible approach to recruiting.” 

The federal government has flagged that digital technology, data and cyber security will be major themes for public service this year, with options under consideration to boost in-house skills that could see changes to the controversial APS staffing cap. 

For Paul Creech at the Digital Health Agency, there is “no magic wand” to solving recruitment challenges but being an employer of choice is part of the equation. 

The agency is making improvements to workplace culture after the last APS census revealed a dip in employee satisfaction. 

“Through COVID we have had a change in CEO, and a change at the second level down pretty much across the board over the last 12 months,” Creech said. 

“That is one of the main focuses of the new executive leadership team, and that is to lift that culture within the agency. 

“The fix for these things isn’t remuneration always — it is a good team environment all focused on the one thing; working together.”

The Mandarin sought interviews with the Digital Transformation Agency and the Australian Public Service Commission but the requests weren’t granted before deadline. 


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