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Skill students for their future workplace, not the current one

September 14, 2018

It’s believed that 35% of core skills will change between 2015 and 2020 (World Economic Forum, 2016).

The Australian education system must give students the skills they need to thrive in a rapidly-evolving, increasingly digital future—but at the moment, this isn’t the case.

The uncertainty surrounding our skills future has slowed action from governments, corporations, and community groups. There’s been a lot of focus on which job types are most susceptible to disruptive technology and automation, but an astounding lack of research into how skills demand will change, and the related consequences for job activities.

But there’s hope: a new NCVER study on disruptive technology outlines the steps we can take to rectify our stalling, and some innovative task forces from the government and AISC look like they might turn things around.

“...there is a growing consensus that Australia’s tertiary education system needs to change to meet the requirements of a future labour force focused on innovation and creativity."

- NCVER, 2018


What is disruptive technology?

Disruptive innovation is caused by large-scale transformations of the market (and life in general) by new technologies and standards. Some recent examples of disruptive technologies are robotics, automation, and virtualisation.

This disruption in the market transforms consumer expectations and values—but not all industries are affected equally. And since the entire market is never affected at once, industries can observe changes and prepare for the disruption.

NCVER’s recent publication on The Fourth Industrial Revolution outlines some of the implications of technological disruption on the Australian VET industry. The frequency of tech updates can occur within the timeframe of a course; students are at risk of graduating with irrelevant skills unless our industry can rapidly remodel.

They found the common VET barriers to adapting to disruptive tech to be:

  • The lack of integration between VET and higher education
  • Resource constraints
  • Constant restructuring within VET
  • Training package limitations

We are living in a rapidly changing society. With VET and higher education as the core skill givers to tomorrow’s worker, they cannot afford to lag behind.

Industry 4.0

We’ve entered the fourth industrial revolution, and it’s been dubbed Industry 4.0 and i4.0.

Industry 4.0 has expedited digitalisation, and certainly the rising demand for digital skills is no surprise to anyone. But while no one knows exactly how AI and automation will blend into the future workforce, it’s believed that that some jobs will be more vulnerable to disruption than others.

And while there’s been plenty of research into which jobs are most susceptible to automation and disruptive tech, there’s been little investigation into how skills demand and job activities will change. And this is a big issue—unless we can be sure of what competencies will become increasingly necessary (and which will be overtaken by technology), then we’re not skilling students for their future workplace, but for the current one.

How the Job Sector Will Change

The lack of consensus on technology’s impact has slowed action from the government and community, despite the resounding warnings coming from research: like CEDA’s 2015 claim that 40% of Australian jobs face a high probability of being overtaken by computers.

It’s claims like these that stir up fear among the public, but fear is not the answer. By preparing for the unavoidable digitalisation of our world, we need to continually develop the soft skills which will remain important. NCVER cites traits like:

  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving
  • Creativity
  • Leadership
  • Communication

As the digital skills demand increases, bigger enterprises are using in-house training to upskill their workers. But small businesses are forced to hire candidates who already fit the bill—making the importance of vocational and higher education increasingly paramount.

VET and i4.0

Changing a VET course is a multi-year national consultation process, and this bureaucracy is hindering Australia from adapting fast enough to the changing workplace landscape. Studies have shown that our governments are too reactive and not proactive enough to deal with digital innovation. Australian productivity hasn’t grown as much as would be expected during this period of disruptive change—and this should be huge point of concern (in fact, there was a 2016 commission into just that).

In 2017 an agreement was signed between Australia and Germany, called the Prime Minister’s Industry 4.0 Taskforce, to develop a global Industry 4.0 standard. Bruce McKinnon (of SAP Australia and New Zealand) is leading the group focusing on work, education, and training:

Excerpt from the Prime Minister’s Industry 4.0 Taskforce

The AISC (Australian Industry and Skills Committee) is working on its own Industry 4.0 Industry Reference Committee to ensure students are given skills with the future in mind. They’ll be working with industry representatives to establish the necessary competencies for the future.

"Australia stands to gain from new technological breakthroughs but only if we prepare people for the skills and knowledge to help them move between jobs and to transition to new and emerging ones."

- John Pollaers, Chair of AISC.

These initiatives are a start in getting us all ready for the workplace changes we need to prepare students for. Not all workplaces will be affected in the same way, making it imperative that we determine where the greatest change will be and focus on updating related training packages first.

NCVER’s Advice

In order to prepare for i4.0, NCVER recommends that the vocational education sector should:

  • Develop training solutions which allow for an expansion of tasks and skills in existing roles
  • Increase the knowledge required of students
  • Focus on the development of soft skills which will make sure our future workforce is flexible to change
  • Move to a cross-industry framework as traditional job boundaries dissolve

As we move into this new era, it’s important to remember that the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills. And not just for students—VET PD needs to keep our trainers up to date, too.

Automation will eliminate few entire roles, but will affect parts of virtually all jobs. The Australian education system should, and must, give students the skills they need to thrive in a rapidly-evolving, increasingly digital future.