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Career Advice

Message to grad students from head of the Public Service: We want you

“We’re looking for people who have had distinctions and who hopefully bring relevant policy experience,” says Patrick Borbey.


On April 3, Patrick Borbey was announced as the new president of the Public Service Commission of Canada. Previously, he was associate deputy minister of Canadian Heritage. When he took on his new role, he was keen to discuss the viable and compelling careers in the public service, especially for under-represented groups. University Affairs blogger Jennifer Polk recently sat down with Mr. Borbey to see what the Public Service Commission has to offer those completing their postsecondary education.

University Affairs: What kind of positions might a recent Masters or PhD graduate qualify for?

Patrick Borbey: There’s a wide variety of positions. The [federal] public service is the largest employer in Canada. The core public service is over 200,000 people and that that doesn’t include places like Parks Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency, which are separate employers. We’re probably talking about 260,000 to 270,000 jobs. There is a huge variety of opportunities.

UA: What recruitment programs target Master’s and PhD graduates specifically?

Mr. Borbey: We do have one very specialized program [for graduate students]. That’s called Recruitment of Policy Leaders. We try to capture the best and the brightest of our graduates, focused on those with a Master’s, PhD or law degree. We’re looking for people who have had distinctions and who hopefully bring relevant policy experience. Quite often they are not fresh out of school, [and have] a lot of experience, including volunteer experience.

We have about 1,500 to 2,000 people apply for this program on an annual basis, and we get that down to 20 to 50 people that are selected. Approximately 30 to 40 percent end up being appointed to the public service. Individual departments run other programs where they’re looking for the next generation of research scientists.

UA: I hear that the public service is keen to recruit members of under-represented groups.

Mr. Borbey: The federal public service recognizes the importance of a representative work force that reflects the diversity of Canada and provides access to federal public service jobs to all Canadians. We’re making changes in the recruitment area to help those looking to enter the public service, including members of Employment Equity groups [Aboriginal persons, women, visible minorities, persons with disabilities]. For example, we launched an inventory for Aboriginal persons and had over 600 candidates. More than 170 of them had a Master’s or PhD.

UA: What do you think would surprise grads about working in the public service?

Mr. Borbey: In my previous role, I went to OCAD University and met with graduate students. They were impressed by the variety of assignments and work that can be done in the federal government. We don’t talk enough about it. I’ve had a career where I’ve worked in 15 different organizations. [New recruits] don’t need to commit to one single stream, job or department.

UA: Something that I hear from people that I interact with is they sometimes feel that their education isn’t valued. I know it’s a general question, but how valued would you say a PhD or Master’s degree might be in the public service?

Mr. Borbey: It depends. In some cases that gets you through the door and then you still have to prove yourself [and learn new skills]. Millennials [in the workplace] want recognition, to make a useful contribution, and they want to continue to learn. What they don’t want is excessive bureaucracy, outdated tools, or an environment where they’re told they can’t do things. They want to know there’s a lot of opportunity in a career. And I think the federal government, with some adjustments, can meet a lot of those requirements. We can provide opportunities for new recruits to directly interact at the senior level, to directly contribute to teams working at all kinds of different levels.

UA: What is your sense, in general, of skill areas or experience types that new grads might need to brush up on either before or once they’re hired?

Mr. Borbey: One example is project management. And writing and communication skills [are crucial]. Writing a good briefing note to try to convince your deputy minister to invest in a certain initiative – and trying to do it within two and a half pages – is a big challenge.

One of the tests we used to do with the RPL program asked candidates to prepare for a presentation to a deputy minister. Then we told them at the last second, “Your presentation’s been cancelled but you’ve got a one-and-a-half-minute elevator ride with the deputy minister. Your ride starts now. Make your pitch.”

The other thing that I would say: take a hard look at your capacity in the second official language. It’s an important asset to build and not to wait until you’re five or 10 years into your career before you say, “Okay, maybe I should invest in my French or English language [skills].” At some point this may be an important factor in future progression.

UA: What misconceptions do you think grads might have about working in the public service?

Mr. Borbey: That the work is boring, repetitive, that it’s unimaginative, that you don’t have much authority, or flexibility, or freedom. All of that can be contradicted based on my experience and on the experience of a lot of my colleagues.

We can make a difference in the lives of Canadians. We can contribute. You can make a link between what you’re doing and positive outcomes for society, for Canadians including in some very tough areas. There’s satisfaction in knowing you’re making a difference.

UA: Where can a prospective applicant learn more about how to apply successfully?

Mr. Borbey: Our postsecondary recruitment campaign launches soon. I encourage people to apply. Then, the RPL will to launch later this winter. In addition, there are always positions that become open. Check our website, GC Jobs.

UA: Any final thoughts?

Mr. Borbey: We believe that the federal government is an employer of choice for graduates and post-graduates. We want to get more through our doors. Demographics are going to create a lot of opportunities, with the retirement of baby boomers. It’s already happening.

We’ve got improvements to make to ensure we’re a welcoming and nurturing environment, and a challenging environment, for new recruits. Keep an eye on this space because we’ve got more changes coming.

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  1. eric jones / October 14, 2017 at 18:33

    Maybe giving folks who fork for foreign affairs an actual contract after several years might inspire some students to consider a career in public service. Just a thought.