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Must-have skills for every graduate applying for the public sector

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Have you got what it takes to be selected for a competitive government graduate program? Here are the 5 skills that every graduate must-have.

One of the best things about applying for graduate roles within the public service is that you don’t need to be a specialist in your field. The required skills for most government jobs are usually ‘generalist’ – which is great news if you have an Arts or Science degree and aren’t quite sure how you’re going to put it to use. Generalist doesn’t mean that any average Joe will be able to do the job but it does mean that the required skills are transferable across departments and industries. This will be useful if you decide that you want to change roles down the track!

Here are five important skills and characteristics that will be crucial to your success in the public service:

Be a team player

No man is an island – especially not in the public service! Whether you like it or not, moving governmental projects from concept to fruition will require consensus and approvals (usually from a director or steering committee for higher-value projects). If you’re working in government, you’ll also be accountable to stakeholders and to the public. Being a team player means you’ll achieve more, as you bring stakeholders along with you to achieve your objectives.

Most departmental work will be team-based, which means that you will be working with others a lot! Your ability to communicate clearly with the other people in your team (and get along with them!) will be crucial to your success.

Beyond this, you will need to approach your work with a perspective that factors in all of the moving parts of team-based projects. It’s all well and good if you’ve done your part, but what if the other members of your team haven’t done theirs? What are the implications of this on your time management and prioritisation? You won’t just be working towards your own deadlines and on your own time, you’ll also need to consider those of your colleagues. Working as part of a team is very different to working alone, and is a skill you’ll need every day in the public service.

Communicate clearly and effectively

The single most important skill you will need in public service is the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. Communication goes hand in hand with teamwork but extends far beyond that.

As part of your role, particularly in the graduate programs we’ve talked about, you will need to write emails, letters and reports, make presentations and telephone calls, participate in meetings, and update stakeholders. All of these communication-based tasks are in addition to the importance of communicating with your colleagues and supervisors on an everyday basis.

Quite simply, communication is the backbone of working in public service and is a skill you will be using each and every time you go to work. Sometimes communication skills come easy to people, but even if they don’t, the good news is that they can be learned and practised — the more you write and speak, the better you become at it.

Have patience

If you’re the kind of person who needs to see results immediately, you may want to reconsider whether the public service is right for you. Although many of the myths about public service can be debunked, the turtle-like pace of government bureaucracy is not one of them.

It can take a long time from initial discussions about a project to its completion, so a patient disposition is a ‘must’ when working in the public service. Because government departments are also accountable to the Australian public, you’ll find that there are a lot of checks and measures that you have to go through before projects can be finalised. This is especially true when reports are to be made public.

If you’re the kind of person who gets frustrated when things don’t happen as quickly as you expect them to, you may want to invest in some meditation audiobooks before embarking on your career in government.

Stay organised

If you’re considering a career in the public service, it’s time to start keeping a calendar! In government, you will be working in an environment that requires you to do a large number of different tasks, both ad hoc and project-based, to a range of deadlines at any one time. Some of these deadlines could be in the coming days, while others may be months away. You will also be accountable to a number of different stakeholders, and will often report to several supervisors.

In short, organisation is your best friend, and being on top of both your task and time management is crucial. There are some good habits you can get into before you even start your career to help develop your organisation skills, and that will come in handy when you find yourself buried under a pile of deadlines.

If you don’t already do so, try out these basic organisational habits:

  • Keep a calendar and update it with any key dates and events to ensure that you remember when things are happening and when tasks are due.
  • Write to-do lists at the beginning of each day. This may seem pointless when your day consists of little more than eating, sleeping and going to the beach, but it will be a great habit when you have a heap of tasks to get through in a day.
  • Set reminders! You might think you have a Mike Ross-level memory, but there will always be a time when something slips your mind. Don’t let this happen by setting yourself reminders that will notify you when key things need to be done (you can practice by setting reminders for birthdays or anniversaries)

Act with integrity

This may seem like a ‘no brainer’ in any role, but as a government employee whose salary comes from the taxpayers, you will have a much higher level of accountability. Government departments must keep long paper trails on all activity, as it is very easy to land yourself in hot water for misuse of funds, equipment and access to information.

Having a strong ethical backbone is key to a successful career in government — just think about all of the politicians and government officials who have lost their jobs after losing sight of what is right and wrong!

As all funding for the government comes from taxpayers, there is a heavy onus on personal and departmental accountability. Government departments must keep long paper trails on all activity, as it is very easy to land yourself in hot water for misuse of funds, equipment and access to information.

Integrity and trust are core values across all government departments and agencies, and you’ll find ethical considerations are prevalent at all times. In fact, ethical concerns are so important to public service that you’ll find questions about them pop up often in government job interviews.

Up next: The highs and lows of working in the public sector.

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