Life Skills for a Digital Future

Rapid technological evolution and the future skills needs of students in an increasingly digitalised economy was the theme for NCVER’s 28th No Frills conference, The Student Journey: Skilling for Life.  VET educators, researchers, policymakers, industry representatives and employers talked over three days about the role VET plays in developing employability skills to enable students to grow and evolve with their jobs.

In opening the conference, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash emphasised the critical role of VET in developing the skills needs of Australia’s changing economy. She observed that VET catered to a diverse age range of students, which was testimony to VET providing lifelong learning opportunities.

Senator Cash said the government’s skills policy aimed to “promote a national approach to skills development and enhance the role of industry in designing training packages”. She also stressed the government’s commitment to putting industry at the heart of VET system to “provide leadership on workforce needs and VET funding”.

Morteza Hajizadeh, AIS’s Research Associate, and Kevin O’Leary, AIS’s Data and System Analyst, were pleased to deliver a presentation on students’ future skills needs. They outlined the changing trajectory of work from the invention of steam power during the 19th century industrial revolution, followed by the discovery of electricity in the early 20th century, automation in the 1970s, and finally digitalisation or industry 4.0 in the 21st century. In this latest wave of change, the key skills are in areas such as data analytics, cyber security, information technology and software development.

There are many doomsday newspaper headlines about automation and robots making millions of jobs redundant. Nothing could be further from the truth: after all, technology consists, first and foremost, of tools made by people and for people. Technology augments employees’ capabilities; it does simply not replace them.

In this context, the nature of the economy has changed. Information, knowledge and technology now constitute an organisation’s main assets. Knowledge is power and organisations with more knowledge workers can maintain their productivity in the new digital economy. This requires changes in attitude, not only on the part of the individual worker but also the whole organisation.

Industry 4.0 organisations need to be aware that it is their employees who play a key role in implementing and maximising the benefits of new technologies. This requires responsible and agile leaders who invest in their people’s development, education, and training. These leaders have to recognise that education is the fundamental enabler of a knowledge economy. Their people need to be able to create, share, disseminate and use knowledge effectively. This means acquiring a set of new occupational skills.

One of the messages that came out of the national Industry Skills Forums last year was that apart from the expected technical future skills, soft skills were equally in demand. Soft skills are defined as both interpersonal and intra-personal behavioural traits needed to apply to technical skills and knowledge in the workplace. Examples of soft skills include communication, expectations management, influencing, problem-solving, and decision-making’, negotiation, conflict resolution, and creativity. Soft skills form the foundation of employees’ competencies and enhance their technical skills.

Education providers can play a crucial role in developing soft skills through partnerships with industries and providing work placement opportunities where students can foster their skills in real environments.

Places of work should be transformed into learning environments which embrace new practices and encourage continuous learning. This trend is known as situated learning where a part of learning occurs in the workplace. Situated practice exposes students and employees to multiple and diverse scenarios where they can develop their skills in real-life contexts. Further, the workplace can facilitate social learning where colleagues hone their soft skills.

As Minister Cash mentioned, learning is now a lifelong endeavour. Employers and workers need to keep on learning and training to remain viable, agile, and responsive in the future of work.