Upskilling workers in the age of automation – who is responsible?

A lifelong learning culture is a number one priority for Australian business in the face of automation and change, but are the working public as concerned about the necessity of ongoing learning in upskilling workers?

The Business Council of Australia recently welcomed a new president. Tim Reed, a former CEO of software firm MYOB, used his first speech in November to outline the list of priorities he had for the business landscape in Australia over the coming years, from the large end of town to the small.

What was the first priority he has named? Lifelong learning and skills. “The first [priority] is that we must prepare Australians with the skills and capabilities they need as technology continues to reshape the way we live and work,” the Australian Financial Review quoted him as saying.

Picking up on trends seeing some jobs made either obsolete or reshaped by technology, as well as the fact the Australian economy is already short on some critical trade-based skills businesses need, Reed argued Australia’s education system – including VET – would need to rise to the challenge.

“[IBM president and CEO] Ginni Rometty has commented many of the new jobs at IBM have a half-life of just three to five years; [Microsoft CEO] Satya Nadella has said in the years to come every business will be a software business, while we are short on some critical trade-based skills.

“In this world, we must ensure that our training and education systems are fit-for-purpose and focused on lifelong learning; and complimented by a skills-based immigration system,” he said. He also said business would play a role as ‘skill builder and career-maker’ alongside education.

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A report from insurer IAG, Opportunities in Change: Responding to the Future of Work, recently found the working public may not be as worried about automation and the need for lifelong learning. It found many aren’t expecting a huge change in their work over the next 50 years.

Quoting a survey conducted by the Australian National University, IAG has reported that when workers are asked if their job will exist unchanged in 2068, responses received indicate:

  • 25.1 percent think no change is coming at all for their job;
  • A large number of respondents – 46.7 percent – believe their job will probably exist;
  • Only 6.3 percent of workers believe it will ‘definitely not exist’.

This contrasts with a variety of predictions on the rate of expected job loss in Australia, that range from as high 46% (McKinsey and Company) and 40% (CEDA – Committee for Economic Development of Australia) to a more measured 9 percent (The University of Melbourne, 2017).

In terms of upskilling, reskilling and embracing lifelong learning, only six percent of respondents were ‘very concerned’ they will be unable to keep up with the technical skills required to do their job over 50 years, with an additional 15.2 percent rating themselves ‘somewhat concerned’.

IAG interpreted the survey findings in two ways. “On the one hand, it is somewhat positive the majority of Australian workers surveyed don’t think it is likely they will lose their job over a 12-month period and think that their job will still exist in 50 years’ time. There is less confidence that they will be able to find another job if they did lose the one they had,” the report stated.

Another interpretation is not as kind. It argues that we may be ‘complacent’. “Australians may not be aware of, and not prepared for, the changes that are likely to come over the short, medium and long term in the labour market. If the population is underprepared, then they may not be investing in the skills and other development for themselves or their children that are required.”

Upskilling workers a joint responsibility

The reality is the education system and/or our workforce alone cannot bear the entire burden of the challenge. All four players – employers, workers, educators, and government – will have their own complementary roles to play in tackling the changes brought about by the future of work.

As PwC’s Sara Caplin said on ReadyTech’s WorkED podcast earlier this year, employers, in particular, may have to become more engaged than they are in upskilling workers. Vocational education and training will continue to evolve what it does best – delivering real skills better and faster.

In the future of work, we all have a way to go. It’s a good thing we have a whole life to learn how.