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The highs and lows of working in the public sector

GradAustralia

Still deciding where to launch your graduate career? We compare five features of the public vs private sector to help you decide.

Should I go private or public? It’s a question we get asked a lot! It’s not completely straightforward to answer as a lot of it depends on what’s important to you, but there are some clear benefits to starting your career in both the public and private sectors. Which sector you decide is best for you will often depend on which perks (and lows) you prioritise over others.

We’ve pitted the public and private sectors against each other in a ‘best of five perk-off’ to give you a better understanding of the pros and cons of each.

Salary

The private sector pays more than public service, but public service is still quite competitive. When you take into account bonuses and similar financial perks, the public sector just can’t compete with the figures offered by the private sector, and this becomes increasingly true as your career goes on.

However, at the graduate level, there really isn’t much difference between the public and private sectors in terms of salary. The salary disparity becomes more apparent the further into your career you will go, as the private sector has a much higher ceiling on your earning potential.

It’s not all bad news for the public sector, even long term.

We dug into graduate survey responses and found that on a dollar-per-hour basis public service wins — they do fewer hours for their relatively good salaries, and the conditions are very generous. Public servants will often be earning more on a per-hour basis than their private sector counterparts, even well into their careers. Another point in favour of the public sector is that they will often make much higher superannuation contributions than private-sector jobs, which can be seen as an investment in itself.

Winner: Private sector (by a whisker)

Work/life balance

Lots of grads are willing to work long and hard for the first 10 years out of the uni gates before they’re responsible for kids and a dog and a mortgage. For these grads, getting started in the private sector is a great choice because they can blitz their first decade, get promoted and get paid — then reassess their options with an arsenal of experience, well-honed skills and a broad network. The trade-off is that they spend most of their young adult life working long hours.

If you’re someone that values having time to do things outside work, or you’re completing postgraduate studies and need to balance your commitments, public service is much more predictable and steady. Hours are enshrined in employment agreements and awards, and overtime is accrued and paid back in flex leave. This means that any time you spend doing work outside of your contracted hours will be given back to you in extra leave — a much sweeter deal than working back until midnight for no extra pay or recognition.

Our graduate survey responses indicate that grads in the public service do on average 30-40 hours per week, compared to grads in some private sector industries regularly pulling 60 hour weeks. That is an extra 20-30 hours a week to spend on things you enjoy outside of work. You’ll have more time for yourself, to see family and friends and to commit to your hobbies.

Of course, the downside to this is that your bottom line salary won’t rise as quickly as it may have in the private sector (though your dollar per hour rate will still be very competitive).

Winner: Public service

Flexibility

Flexibility is one of those perks that you don’t realise you needed until you have it, but once you have it, you can never live without again. You will find flexible working practices in both sectors, however, they are more consistently available in the public sector. This is because in the private sector each company sets its own policy regarding flexibility, so what you can and can’t do will vary from workplace to workplace.

On the other hand, government departments need to follow centralised policies and agreements that prescribe very flexible work practices including flexible hours and work from home arrangements. These flexible conditions are also prevalent in the private sector depending on the company.

Where the public service really pulls ahead in the flexibility race is with flex leave (which we mentioned above). Government employees can earn a significant amount of extra leave each year just by working beyond their standard 9-5 work hours. This is a level of flexibility that the private sector will never be able to compete with.

Winner: Public service (but depending on the company you work for, private can be just as flexible other than flex leave)

Training

If you’re looking to get some serious training on the job, there’s a clear winner.

The public sector might have a robust program here and a domestic flight to a meeting there, but they simply can’t compete with the big-budget programs of the top-tier consulting firms or tech companies (among others) for their incredible onboarding and training experiences.

From international company conventions in Sweden to undertaking charity work in remote island communities, the funds that private sector organisations have to help you upskill and flesh out your CV just aren’t available if you’re on Australia’s payroll. We’ve got roads to build and hospitals to stock.

Winner: Private sector

Career prospects

When it comes to career prospects, it really depends on what you want to do long-term.

If you want to become an investment banker or logistics manager, there’s not much chance you’d be looking at public service as a launch-pad. There just aren’t that many positions in fields like these, if any.

If you want to get into communications or science, however, public service might be an attractive proposition. The Digital Transformation Agency is doing some groundbreaking work, while the CSIRO is leading the way in scientific innovation.

There are some industries that prefer candidates who come from experience in the private sector, especially in professional services. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities for career progression to go from public to private in these industries, and in fact, a lot of the long-held beliefs about public service in these circles are outdated and self-limiting, but they do exist and it would be remiss not to point it out.

There have been instances of public servants going into senior roles at professional services firms, but it usually works the other way around. In terms of pure career ceiling, the private sector can’t be beaten. However, it is worth keeping in mind that job security in the public sector is much stronger, and this kind of stability can provide a good platform to build your career on.

Winner: Private sector

From a graduate perspective, it’s hard to beat the private sector for their training, opportunities and budgets. But don’t be too quick to write off the public service — for the right graduates, working for the government is an excellent way to get ahead. It just takes a bit of careful thinking about the kind of lifestyle you want to lead, where you want to be down the track and how you plan to get there. Both sectors have plenty to offer, and it really just boils down to what you prioritise more — a higher career and salary ceiling or a better work/life balance.

We know that many graduates will have a varied career – to learn more about your career after working in the public sector, read the next article in our series about the world after working in government and public service.