APS Levels Explained: Officer and Executive

If you’ve never worked in Government before, the seniority system and APS work level standards can be a little bit mystifying. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it fast.

There are two good news points to make at the outset:

  1. The structure is pretty much the same across the Commonwealth and all States and Territories, and
  2. The structure does loosely mirror what you would expect to see in large private companies, albeit with a different corporate objective (i.e. no profit motive).

APS Levels Explained

At its simplest, the hierarchy of Government looks like a pyramid, with the majority of staff at officer level ‘doing the work’, with two levels of management above:

The example APS classifications above correlate to the levels of seniority in the Australian Public Service (APS), but you will see similar levels and classifications in all Governments in Australia.

For example, the levels for the Victorian Public Service look like this:

APS Level Guide

Generally speaking, advancing within your section of the pyramid (i.e. from level 3 to level 4, or from Executive Level 1 to Executive Level 2) is easier to achieve that advancing to the next rung on the career pyramid (if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor).

The reason for this is that these three distinct levels is assumed to carry with it a progressively greater level of managerial or corporate responsibility.

Of course, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. There are plenty of APS4s who manage staff, and plenty of subject matter experts at the Senior Executive Level who do not. However, it is a useful framework within which to view the differences between these levels.

Generally, a person advancing from the first layer to the second would start supervising one or two people. When they are promoted to the EL1 level, they will be responsible for running a whole section. Should they wish to advance to the SES, they would be responsible for a branch, comprising several sections and potentially dozens of officers.

I’m coming in from the Private Sector – What Level Should I Target?

This is a difficult question, and of course every person’s situation is different. If your only experience is in hospitality, Government work will present a steep learning curve, and you would want to give yourself an opportunity to excel – so enter at a level where expected knowledge of government processes is lower. If you are the CEO of BHP and used to managing thousands of people, you should probably run your own Department.

Pay scales can help – but are not always a useful method of calculating where you fit, either. We have seen equal numbers of under-qualified and over-qualified candidates land a job in the public service, only to end up stressed and disillusioned, or bored out of their brains. The best advice we can give here is to talk to people – in the organisation, in the team (there is always a contact officer for every job, for a reason!) and try to feel out how good a fit you are. If you think you can handle it, aim higher! After all, you’re not the one doing the assessing, so throw your hat in the ring, be honest, and you might get a pleasant surprise.

APS Classification Levels

Now, having said all that, here is a rough approximation of the equivalent levels, by a few professions:

Public Servant Office Administrator Academic Lawyer Teacher
APS 1-2 Intern Paralegal Placement
APS 3-4 Administrator Research Assistant Junior Associate Classroom Teacher
APS 5-6 Senior Administrator PhD Candidate Associate Snr Teacher
EL1 Office Manager Post-Doc Researcher Senior Associate 1-2 Leading Teacher
EL2 Director Senior Lecturer Senior Associate 3-4 Deputy Principal
SES CEO Dean Partner Principal

It’s important to realise that Government is a different world to the private sector. If you’ve worked in any large organisation, a lot of the process and bureaucracy will already be familiar to you. If you haven’t, give yourself the time and space you need to get familiarised with the public service culture. This is especially important if you are going to be managing people.

A small investment, made early, will reap dividends in the future.

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