Where the future work skills debate goes missing

| March 13, 2019

The new report Future Skills by thinktank AlphaBeta for Google Australia aims to identify the type of skills that will be needed in the Australian workforce in the years ahead.

It builds on its earlier report The Automation Advantage which argues that automation will enhance working life eliminating its more risky and boring elements, creating many interesting new jobs, and greatly increasing the nation’s productivity – and wealth.

With that view of the workforce, the Future Skills report tell us that it will be our human characteristics such as integrity, leadership, persistence, empathy, and attention to detail that will be in high demand in the future.

With that view of the workforce, the Future Skills report tell us that it will be our human characteristics such as integrity, leadership, persistence, empathy, and attention to detail that will be in high demand in the future.

Our skills that cover knowledge (information sets) and abilities (such as mending cars, analysing documents) are the ones that machines will have an increasing capacity to replicate. This analysis is broadly consistent with that of a NESTA Oxford 2017 report for the UK and USA The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030.

The AlphaBeta report for Australia proposes that the work of the future will demand continuous upskilling and much more training than is required now across all occupations and at all stages of working life. Most people will need to change occupations at least once over their working lives and hence undertake reskilling.

And within occupations, there will be continuous need for upskilling to adapt to the ongoing transformations in work caused by technology. But the report emphasises that skills upgrading will not necessarily require the long-haul attainment of a qualification over months or years but rather extra time every week on-the-job.

It goes without saying that we must understand the skill requirements for the emerging world of work both as young people starting out and people already well down the track of our working lives. To this end the Future Skills report and its predecessor, the Automation Advantage, are timely and useful – up to a point.

But it is equally important that we understand the other crucial elements of workforce change that impact on our working lives and the skills we need to ensure we remain continuously employable and employed.

Taskification: the breaking down of jobs and occupations

We like to think that a job or an occupation is a concrete entity with long term continuity. We might believe that we can acquire and then maintain the skills that fit that particular job for decades.

But many jobs are actually unstable entities, a package of tasks that have been constructed over a period of time to fit a certain way of doing things within an economic system. But there is nothing fixed about this package of tasks called a job or occupation at all.

Advanced technology particularly digitisation is adept in relation to breaking down jobs and occupations into tasks. These tasks may be automated or outsourced through the many digital online employment platforms that have emerged in recent years. In essence, the tasks that constitute many jobs can be done anywhere by specialised workers for cognitive tasks or locally for manual or human service tasks.

“Taskification” is a major theme of a recent report on the impact of technology on work and employment by Eurofound for the European Commission, and one that has been central to my own writing about the future of work for some years.

Integration of technologies into jobs

AlphaBeta says automation will make working life easier by replacing the boring, repetitive and dangerous parts of jobs. But the reality for many jobs is that machines will not replace you but will be enmeshed in your job or your occupation. The outcome may be that they make jobs harder as a recent report by the ABC about the new Amazon warehouse in Melbourne shows.

In the story, staff reported that they are timed to the second for their performance, and if they don’t keep up, they are castigated by supervisors. The story echoes my own research on casual workers.

In essence, digitisation and the associated algorithms are used for surveillance and monitoring of work performance, making working life ever more stressful and difficult. It occurs across many sectors of employment including professional and human services areas where workers may be required to wear biometric sensors to monitor their bodily movements.

How we need to think about skills for future work

It is too simplistic as AlphaBeta have done, in both reports, to think about the new world of work in terms of job loss and job creation with automation. We can no longer think about jobs and occupations as static entities.

Most of them in fact can be broken up and transformed in ways we may not anticipate. The bigger story involves factors including digitisation, algorithms, the internet of things, and online platforms that profoundly affect the very nature of our work as in taskification and integration into our jobs.

We need to take a very broad view of the skills – and knowledge – we will need across our lives.To this end, I very much like the prognosis of the NESTA Oxford report for the UK and USA. It says: We show that the future workforce will need broad-based knowledge in addition to the more specialised features that will be needed for specific occupations.

Their list of such knowledge areas includes English language, history, philosophy, management and administration. They also show the importance of complementarity between skill areas – such as foreign languages for specialised STEM occupations. What is so compelling about this way of thinking about future skills is that it empowers us, as workers, to find multiple avenues to be and remain relevant in a technology-driven world of work.

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