Future skilling our people in the age of digital transformation

forum_can_2Never in human civilisation has change been so intense. Things are moving so fast that we don’t have the luxury of time to respond to what is happening in the world of work. This is how Kerry O’Brien introduced the first AIS Industry Skills Forum in Canberra on 11 September.

With three groups of high school students in the room the speakers were on notice that they must reach out to the next generation of workers and leaders by describing the opportunities and satisfaction their industries could offer. This remains a challenge, given traditional and often out-dated perceptions of many of today’s jobs and careers.

Moreover, the first speaker, Professor Devinder Grewal, a logistics specialist, contended the education system is too focussed on acquiring an initial tertiary qualification rather than on equipping students for a life of learning. People will need new skills and greater conceptual understandings at many points during their careers. Not only will they have to transfer their skills to different functions but also be comfortable moving between industries. The system has to impart a combination of cognitive, technical and operational skills.

Young people are becoming more anxious about the future of jobs. Countering this anxiety means, as many speakers noted, explaining the upside of what digital transformation can offer: fewer routine jobs and more chances to change people’s lives for the better or to contribute to a sustainable future. It also means presenting the benefits of new areas of skills and work, for example in cybersecurity. That word tends to have a negative connotation but also offers the possibilities of safe places in which to learn, conduct business or interact. forum_can_1

The pace of change and disruption tends to encourage doubt and pessimism, for example about the loss of entry-level as well as existing jobs or the need to retrain. More needs to be done to convey positive messages about the transformations taking place. Take the corrections industry: the image associated with prisons is usually iron bars rather than the work of educating and rehabilitating offenders. That is not to say there are not downsides. The training and employment system is still working out how best to help people made redundant in industry restructures. This depends not only on policies and programs but also on individuals. Some people can reinvent themselves better than others, often because they have transferable skills or the ability to learn. Thus, we return to a theme of the day: education and training must equip people to deal with, if not embrace, change.

It’s not all gloom for older workers who are employed, assuming they want to stay in the workforce. Participation rates for those over 65 are three times what they were ten years ago. With people’s working lives being much longer, we need also to consider how to capture and reward and offer continuing professional development. The forum posed the question of how the VET system can further support upskilling or training in leadership and mentoring.

Answering Kerry O’Brien’s question about how we cushion the impact of change, Petr Adamek from the Canberra Innovation Network suggested that people within industry must look after their own disruption: ‘enabling change helps to fight it’, he said. Revealing his optimistic mindset, Adamek also suggested that businesses faced with skills shortages should take this as a signal of their success. It could also be an indicator of where they needed to innovate, for example by finding a technological solution or by building multidisciplinary teams to address shortages.

One question from the floor asked how to inspire young people to learn. In an increasingly entrepreneurial working environment, the answer may be to celebrate failure rather than focus on success, which is prone to dampening curiosity and deterring people from taking risks. Experimentation and learning from what doesn’t work is imperative for finding innovative solutions and responses to rapidly changing conditions.

Being ahead of the game is essential, as the energy network sector has discovered. For fifty years, the electricity grid was about getting power from the source to its user: it was about wires and poles. All that’s been turned upside down in the last decade. The industry has had to adapt to a two-way flow of electricity, which includes individual photovoltaic sources in the home and renewable sources of energy stored in batteries. The industry took some years to catch up with these trends. It is beginning to be proactive and to predict what next will be needed to skill a workforce that has to collect and analyse real-time data from consumers and install and maintain very different network systems.

In the aviation sector, drones have been a major disruption. They have undermined those businesses that offered scenic flights for aerial photography and joy rides and which were central providers of entry-level training and jobs for pilots who would make their way up from general aviation to jobs with the major airlines. With this change to the pipeline, the industry must rethink its training model at a time when 11.5 per cent growth in pilot jobs is predicted. Whilst one option is to recruit from overseas; another is to find ways to attract Australian pilots working abroad to come home, and a third is to find new ways of attracting people to the industry to train to become pilots.

The last question to the panel came from a girl in year nine. She asked what career opportunities beckoned. In unison, the answer from a panel representing industries dominated by men was that the potential for girls to work wherever they want exists. First, though, employers had more to do to create the conditions that not only attract but also retain a diversity of workers ‒ people who offer a mixture of new skills and attitudes, as well as a variety of experience, to make the most of digital disruption.

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