How to compete for talent in the public sector

The public sector has faced significant change in the last two years – perhaps more so than ever before. These rapid workplace changes brought on by the pandemic have led to a shift in employee priorities and expectations, as well as a skills shortage.

So, what do workers in the public sector expect from their employers now? And how can leaders ensure they’re meeting these expectations?

Annie Reeves, Executive Director of People and Culture for the Department of Jobs, Precincts, and Regions offers her advice on how public sector leaders can create a culture that keeps highly-skilled employees engaged.

How employee expectations have changed

Almost overnight, organisations have had to move to remote and hybrid working – and that’s been a steep learning curve for leaders in the public sector.

Flexible working came down with a blunt edge, but the public sector just had to deal with it,” Reeves says.

If we’re facing a future of continued hybrid working, it’s going to be more important than ever to keep employees engaged.

“Employees have high expectations – and rightly so – around initiatives within the workplace to support their health and wellbeing, such as good support structures, and good team leaders.”

Like any organisation, the public sector needs to adapt, be resilient and look after its people, Reeves says. “If we don't, it's at our peril and we will lose good people.”

Listen to the latest SEEK Talent Talks podcast on "How public sector leaders can navigate changing employee expectations”.

What employees are looking for

According to SEEK research, these are the top priorities of government employees when they’re considering a new role:

  1. Salary: Base salary, salary review periods and compensation for overtime.
  2. Work-life balance: Flexible working hours, ability to work from home, and time in lieu.
  3. Career development opportunities: Promotion, on-the-job training, and in-house training.
  4. Organisational culture: Supportive, respectful, collaborative, inclusive, transparent.

How to show employees you’ve got what they want

“There are skills shortages, and we're losing people to the corporate sector based on money and talent,” Reeves says.

“The challenge around retaining highly skilled talent is keeping everyone engaged.”

Of course, the public sector faces restrictions around salary and location. So how can leaders promote the public sector as an employer of choice when the competition for talent is fierce?

“Managers need to be well trained, and there need to be career pathways. There also needs to be a robust employee value proposition that’s clear and articulated throughout the organisation.

“If you don't have all those factors humming, you end up running the risk of the employees not really knowing what they're doing and no sense of being connected to a higher purpose. If you don't have that suite of offerings, then you lose good people.”

While the public service is not for everyone, public sector leaders can be clear about what they offer, Reeves says.

“There are great career opportunities. People can move within departments, cross skill and look for other opportunities within the public sector.”

Leaders should be proud of the work they’re doing, too, such as supporting regional communities.

“In the day-to-day operational work, often the greater sense of purpose gets lost, and we need to spend more time talking about that.”

How to impact culture during hybrid working

Technology has opened up incredible opportunities for connecting remote teams, Reeves says. But the challenge lies in maintaining human connection.

“Technology creates a culture of task orientation and task delegation, and misses that human connection and pastoral care that we would normally have.”

That’s why it’s up to team leaders to check in with employees and ask how they’re going, Reeves says.

“It’s really important just to ask the question: what’s going on? What’s keeping you up at night? What are you working on? We encourage all our team managers and leaders to ask those questions.”

How to understand the needs of your team

So how can people leaders in the public sector understand the expectations and needs of their team?

“Talk to them,” Reeves says. “If you can understand what your team are looking for, accommodate their career development, be supportive and have the conversation, that's all you need to start with.”

Remote working and technology come with great opportunities and challenges, and it’s up to people leaders to check in with employees to keep them engaged and motivated. Competition with the private sector for talent is fierce, and leaders need to highlight their employee value proposition and show what the public sector has to offer. Positives such as a greater sense of purpose and the chance to move between roles and departments will attract highly skilled candidates.

Source: SEEK’s Laws of Attraction, an ongoing survey of thousands of Australian candidates, conducted by SEEK and administered by Qualtrics, last updated October 2021.

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