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What does craft brewing tell us about a future public sector career?

Despite the high barriers to market entry, craft brewers are proliferating and growing.

The artisanal appeal isn’t just limited to beer, wine and gin. The ‘great resignation’ has prompted many employees and some businesses to think about how to strike the right balance between work and life through more varied and crafted careers.

The drivers behind the consumer thirst for craft beer and employee desires for more open career paths are similar and worth exploring.

Australia’s public service has placed ‘craft’ at the centre of learning and development through the recently established APS Academy. ‘APS craft’ is described as ‘the fundamental capabilities needed to deliver great policy and services’.

There is a supporting diagram and, appropriate to the idea of craft, videos of senior public servants elaborating on what craft means in the context of policy and implementation. However, the concept of APS craft seems to have been channelled into learning and development when adopting the idea of craft could be a way to connect the APS to the broader opportunity and desire for workforce change and reform.

The attraction of craft is that it encompasses a personal connection to the quality of our work. Richard Sennett puts this well in his book Craftsmanship – craft “names an enduring, basic impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake”. Work reflects the person’s values, attitude, competence, skill and aesthetic sense.

It may be difficult for some to see the work of public servants in this way, but the ideas of connection and quality have always been central to the sense of long-term stewardship running deeply through APS culture. Unfortunately, the grinding rationalism of management culture has taken a firm grip on the APS and the sense of craft is being diminished.

‘Craftwork’ is often described as ‘head and hands’. It’s the practical application of insight, experience and technique. This strongly resonates with the work lives of public servants.

Policy design and implementation, for example, is a unique combination of head and hands. The question beneath this practice is: ‘how do you get better at something?’

A craft career is one of learning through observation, practice and experience. The progression is from apprentice to journeyman and eventually to master. The risk is that the apprentice is only as good as the teacher, so mobility in the journeyman years is critical.

Similarly, the APS has grappled with mobility over many years as part of career development and progression. How does the APS create the career pathways that encourage employees to curate a career through mobility? How do the three APS professional streams – HR, data and digital – contribute to a craft career pathway?

The APS craft challenge

The ‘10,000-hour rule’ is the idea that becoming the master of a set of skills takes 10,000 hours of work. How well those hours are structured and the quality of the experience in those 10,000 hours are the measures of success.

The structure and quality of experience across an APS career pathway can be patchy. Some positions provide excellent opportunities to learn and develop. When combined with interested and engaged leadership, the experience can accelerate development.

Other positions help employees understand the importance of foundations and basic processes. In a craft career, the progression is structured through work experiences.

The challenge of a craft career for the APS is the need to ensure development to a standard of practice through the apprentice years, facilitating mobility through structured work experiences during the journeyman years and freeing the masters from routine production to advance the craft and bring on emerging talent.

The combined pressures of capacity gaps, the expectations of rapid promotion, the competitive labour market and the constant demands of delivery are all undermining the ability of the APS to deliver on craft careers. Employees are often left to their own devices.

So, we come back to the rise of craft brewing. Why do consumers value craft over industrial products? Here we’re interested in the drivers of ‘switching behaviour’. The workplace corollary is the ‘intention to leave’.

The combination of pandemic border closures, increasing demands for skilled workers across the economy and the behavioural consequences that come with the ‘great resignation’ are driving a tight labour market that is highly volatile. The APS is already experiencing these pressures in critical skill areas.

Switching to craft beer or wine seems to be driven largely by the perceived functional, social and emotional benefits associated with the product. Consumers value the craftsmanship and quality of the product. Association with the product gives consumers a sense of positivity and being part of a community.

The functional benefits (craft and quality) are push drivers – that is, positive or negative perceptions of craft and quality push consumers away from industrial brands or towards brands within the craft market. The emotional and social benefits (feeling positive and a sense of community) are pull drivers that bring consumers to the product.

In a challenging national labour market, attraction and retention will remain a focus for leaders in all APS departments and agencies. The APS must find ways to compete for the core skills it needs to deliver on government and community expectations.

The idea of craft supported by career pathways potentially offers something unique and attractive in the labour market but also in retaining key skills. How can the APS maximise the craft and quality of public service work to create a sense of contribution and community?

Craft is an appealing and attractive component of the APS value proposition. It includes skills development but has a depth that resonates with APS history and values. The critics and naysayers will be quick to point out that selling the sizzle without being able to deliver the steak makes for disgruntled customers, and that is true.

The APS has the kernel of a good idea in moving to embrace craft as a core part of its capability and identity. When work and organisation are going through fundamental change, a strategic window has opened that offers the opportunity for more experimentation and innovation in how the APS attracts, develops and retains the capabilities it needs to deliver.

The demands for greater efficiency, the need to work across government and industry to deliver integrated services and the step-change in technology drive a need for transformation. If the APS continues to think in industrial-age terms, it won’t be able to develop the capabilities and techniques appropriate to meet these demands.

A larger view of the public service craft offers a platform for thinking differently about work and career.

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