Should I start my career in the public or private sector?

Erin Delaney
Team GradAustralia
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We get asked this question 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.

Salary

The private sector pays more than public service, though public service is still quite competitive. When you take into account bonuses and the like, though, the public sector just can’t compete on those figures.

However, it’s not all bad news for the public sector. 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.

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 new little people 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.

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. 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 hours weeks.

Winner: Public service

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 and their ilk 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 jumping-off point. 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 are leading the way in scientific innovation.

There are some industries that prefer candidates 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.

Winner: Private sector

From a graduate perspective, it’s hard to beat the private sector for their 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.