Australian employees are on the move—seeking work that is more meaningful, advances their careers, and pays them more (Exhibit 1). Working in the public sector has often been regarded as satisfying for those who want to give service, rather than earn a lot of money; yet employees in this sector, too, are looking elsewhere to fulfill their work needs.
How do public-sector leaders in Australia avoid being affected by the great attrition, keep their present staff, and attract new talent? Using data from our research, we examine the increase in job mobility and the reasons behind it, and pose three key questions that leaders can ask to address this challenge.
Australian job mobility is on the rise in both the public and private sectors
Job mobility is trending back to pre-COVID-19 levels in Australia—in February 2022, about 700,000 people changed jobs or actively sought other employment, up from approximately 450,000 in April 2020 and nearly 600,000 in January 2019.
Across both public and private sectors, more than one-third of employees are likely to leave their positions in the next three to six months, with 35 percent in the public sector likely to move on within that time period (Exhibit 1).
Australian employees are on the move—seeking work that is more meaningful, advances their careers, and pays them more.
Work-related factors are the main drivers for talent leaving the public sector. Employees likely to stay in their jobs cite meaningful work (48 percent of such respondents), adequate compensation (48 percent), and career development (30 percent) as three of their four top reasons (Exhibit 2).
These factors also play a role in leaving: lack of career-development potential, meaningless work, and uncaring leadership are cited by 52 percent, 43 percent, and 42 percent of those likely to leave, respectively. While workplace flexibility and geographical ties are strong drivers to stay (49 percent and 29 percent), they don’t feature strongly in leaving (28 percent and 14 percent).
Few employees in the public sector report that a safe workplace environment or an inclusive community are important reasons to stay in a job (11 percent and 13 percent of those likely to stay, respectively). In contrast, in the private sector, around a quarter of workers who are likely to stay in their jobs rate each of these things as important.
People-related factors are also not crucial reasons for public-sector employees to seek new work. For example, only 17 percent of respondents likely to leave cite unsupportive colleagues and 10 percent a lack of community.
Young talent is attracted by meaningful work and career development
Reasons for staying in or leaving jobs differ between older and younger people, and between the public and private sectors.
For younger talent (under 35), meaningful work is a key reason to stay or leave, and a key difference from their more experienced colleagues across both public and private sectors. This is the only area in which age makes a consistent difference in both sectors: young people care more than more experienced colleagues that their work is important and relevant to them—although in all cases it comes after career development.
Career development is cited as the number-one reason to leave for both age groups in both sectors. In the public sector, 62 percent of older respondents who are planning to leave their jobs give this as the top reason, while 46 percent of the younger cohort do (Exhibit 3).
In the private sector, there is little difference between the age groups here. In the private sector, lack of caring leadership matters more to experienced workers (29 percent of those likely to leave) than to those 34 and below (24 percent).
Three key questions to address workforce attrition in the public sector
Public-sector leaders in Australia need to focus on interventions that address immediate talent challenges, while preparing their workforce for the future talent they will need. They can ask themselves three key questions:
How are you presently building a workplace that retains top performers?
Leaders could consider how their workplace’s purpose, vision, and values manifest in daily work. Are they meeting people’s needs for meaningful work, career development, and adequate compensation? High performance, for example, could be fostered by mentorship or leadership that supports employees’ personal growth. As hybrid work becomes more standard, have employers considered if they are providing job flexibility through technology or other ways of working? And are leaders fostering diversity and inclusion?
What workforce will you need to deliver on your strategic objectives?
Departments and agencies could assess what impact their objectives will have on their talent requirements in the next one to five years; identify gaps between their current and anticipated future workforce; and think about what risks might be unique to their workforce and talent strategy. For example, a large Australian service agency explored how it might reshape itself in response to rapidly changing citizen needs. This included workforce modelling to assess and align capabilities and capacity with future workforce needs, designing the operating model best suited to deliver on these requirements down the line, and focusing on the future design of critical roles.
How do you best prepare to deliver on these future workforce needs?
Having appraised the gap between their current workforce and the future one, leaders might consider how this can be filled. They could differentiate their department or agency from talent competitors by creating a unique employee-value proposition, and explore how they are planning to grow internally through formal and informal mechanisms. Lastly, leaders could decide what cultural and operating-model shifts might best support different talent and skills. For example, one Australian government department embarked on a reskilling program that both built future digital capabilities across 23 learning outcomes and supported employee engagement, with 90 percent of employees agreeing that this helped them in their career development.
Job mobility is currently a challenge for the public sector. By identifying the reasons why people are leaving and finding out what might make them stay, leaders are well placed to make the necessary changes to transform the great attrition into the great attraction.