Future of Work = massive skills upgrade

Published on the 24/01/2019 | Written by Heather Wright

New reports demand major re-think on education…

Two new reports are upping the pressure on governments, educational providers and businesses to take a more active role investing and helping with the ‘significant’ task of upskilling workers at risk on being displaced by Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as AI, automation and big data analytics.

The local context is set by Sydney think tank AlphaBeta in a report, commissioned by Google Australia (and no relation to Google parent company Alphabet Inc.), which suggests a dramatic shift is required to deliver more formal education into a vocational setting, with ongoing on-the-job upskilling needed to ensure future workers remain relevant and competitive.

The report says the advances in technologies and automation sweeping through everything from supermarket checkouts to farming ‘will drive dramatic shifts in Australia education and training requirements’ that will necessitate significant government support.

“The question of who pays for the stranded workers and for the upskilling needed is becoming urgent.”

Those findings are backed up by the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) release of the Towards a Reskilling Revolution: Industry-Led Action for the Future of Work report, at the Davos forum this week, which highlights governments role in reskilling, saying the cost of reskilling the 1.4 million US workers expected to lose their jobs over the next decade will largely fall on the government.

Using a ‘conservative’ estimate, the WEF report says the reskilling challenge will cost US$34 billion in the United States alone and only a part of it will be profitable for companies to take on by themselves, even if they were to think long term. In fact, the report suggests private industry will only be able to profitably retrain a quarter of the workers and take on just 14 percent of the reskilling bill.

Saadia Zahidi, World Economic Forum managing director and head of the Centre for the New Economy and Society says the question of who pays for the stranded workers and for the upskilling needed across economies is becoming urgent.

“In our view, a combination of three investment options needs to be applied: Companies working with each other to lower costs; governments and taxpayers taking on the cost as an important societal investment; and governments and business working together,” Zahidi says.

The report highlights the potential for public-private collaboration, pooling resources or combining similar upskilling efforts to create economies of scale and ‘significantly’ extend the private sector balance sheet.

When it comes to government funding, the report says increased tax returns and lower social costs such as unemployment compensation can be factored in for government reskilling of at-risk workers.

However, it notes that, for the US at least, for 18 percent of workers the costs to reskill will outweigh the economic returns for the government – with the findings implying governments will need to consider expanding welfare and social support, paying for negative return reskilling due to its societal returns and lowering the costs of reskilling and retraining through incentives to, and collaboration with, private sector and educators, for initiatives such as apprenticeships and online learning.

A quantitative cost-benefit analysis for companies’ considerations on whether to reskill current workers or fire and hire new staff is also included in the report.

The newly released AlphaBeta report, Future Skills, echoes WEF’s findings, warning that significant national reform is required and that business as usual ‘is not an option’.

It advises that a lot of training will need to shift from the traditional university or TAFE training to on-the-job training, and short, flexible courses aimed at mid-career workers, with Australia needing to double its investment in education and training, with learning increasingly moving to adult learners.

Education providers will have to adjust not just content, but teaching methods, something AlphaBeta says will be a challenge.

“At present, the system is not fully equipped to deliver the amount of education and training that is required to prepare Australian workers for the future of work.

“Schools, universities, TAFEs and private vocational training institutions need to urgently step up in catering for a reskilling and upskilling revolution as they choose what and how education is delivered… every education provider will need to revise curricula and pedagogy.”

Future Skills studied changes in more than 300 jobs, the tasks they involved, and the skills required to do them and found that the most valuable workplace skills will be those that complement, rather than compete, with automation and AI. ‘Uniquely human traits’ such as creativity, leadership, adaptability and teamwork, were ranked the fastest growing skills. Training will need to move from ‘skills’ to skill sets.

Businesses too, will need to adjust, with AlphaBeta highlighting a need for businesses to prioritise formal training for their workforce and make more mentoring and on-the-job learning opportunities available. Close collaboration with education and training providers will also be required to ensure overhauled curricula meet businesses requirements.

And for individuals, the changes will see more time spent in education – an additional three hours per week for the average Australian, come 2040. That’s a 33 percent increase across their lifetime and will double the total stock of education and training required in Australia to 600 billion hours by 2040, with adult education increasingly important. While today the average Australian acquires more than 80 percent of their skills and knowledge by the age of 21, come 2040, 41 percent of our knowledge and skills will be acquired as adults.

The WEF also released a whitepaper by the Centre for the New Economy and Society outlining 10 strategies for building a skills-based labour market.

The white paper serves up strategies for shifting to a skills-based focus on the education side and integrating a skills focus in the workforce, as well as providing ‘an enabling environment’ through alignment between different stakeholders.

Among the strategies for businesses are mapping the skills content of jobs, and rethinking organisation and talent management processes to a system that better adapts to changing work and skills with seamless and continuous matching of clusters of skills to evolving work requirements.

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