Future of work raises stakes for all Australians

By Ry Crozier, Australian Computer Society

A panel of experts involved in the creation of a new report on the future of work in Australia have highlighted what they see as the main risks stemming from it.

The CSIRO-led report, entitled Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce, is a collaboration between government, CSIRO and industry, including ACS.

The report highlights expected changes in Australian workplaces and workforces over the next 20 years and how individuals, businesses, industries and governments might be able to prepare.

Though some job types could be lost to automation, others are likely to be created. However, it is unclear at present where some opportunities could lie, and some of the report’s co-authors and contributors saw that as a risk to Australia’s future prosperity.

Secretary of the Department of Employment Renée Leon told a launch event in Sydney for the report that she believed the transition path for today’s workers into tomorrow’s workforce would be a major risk for Australia.

“While overall there will be many new jobs created [in a digitally-disrupted world], they won’t necessarily be ones that the people currently doing the jobs that will be lost can seamlessly transition into,” she said.

“We will need to still make sure that government provides a strong social safety net both to ensure people aren’t falling completely out of work, and provides the retraining that people will need to go into the new industries and jobs, even if they’re not what they’d previously been doing.

“We’re already seeing this with the reduction of manufacturing. The people currently working on assembly lines won’t automatically and seamlessly translate into – for example – aged care jobs unless we help them see that as an option and train them for it.

“I don’t think we should be allowing whole cohorts of people to just end up on the scrap heap because we don’t support them into new jobs and new industries.”

Leon believed another risk to success was fostering adaptability across the whole workforce to help people positively deal with disruption and changes to their work.

“There is a risk that both all of us currently in the workforce but also our young people coming through won’t realise that the job they trained for might not even exist by the time they finish their studies and the job they start out in almost certainly won’t be then job they finish up in,” Leon said.

“The risk they we don’t retrain ourselves and our workforce for adaptability would really get in our way [of future economic prosperity and success].”

Drs Patrick Maes, CTO and General Manager of Strategy & Planning for Global Technology, Services and Operations at ANZ Bank, believed industry needed to do a better job creating viable employment opportunities for people with STEM skills.

“If I compare the situation today with what I experienced when I came from a university in Europe where I had a job the year before I graduated and had no debt, the statistics for ICT students is about 60 percent employability and a $10,000 debt per year of study,” Maes said.

“I think the biggest risk is we’re creating a lot of traction in promoting STEM and ICT but we don’t create the employment. That today is a real issue.”

Maes also saw an opportunity for a stronger culture to be developed around Australia’s embrace of technology.

“I don’t think we have yet the culture as in Silicon Valley or the United States that embraces technologies and takes them forward to better everything we do as a country and as an industry,” he said.

The Boston Consulting Group Partner and Managing Director Brad Noakes believed one of the risks of the future of work report was that “we actually underestimate the combined effect of all of the risks [it describes] together, as to how dramatic it’s all going to be.”

“The second risk I’d pull out is embracing or trying to hold back the change,” Noakes said.

“I think there are tremendous advantages for us as a country if we embrace these changes on the front foot but there’s also real risks, and I think the risks will come out because through the transition there will be structural disadvantages created that we’ll need to manage through.

“Naturally in a lot of those areas people will want to resist the change happening and try to hold onto industries that are no longer competitive, and try to hold onto jobs that there’s no future for, rather than embracing the need for change.”

CSIRO’s Dr Cecile Paris believed human skills would still be important in the future of work, meaning that machines may not take human jobs to the level that some forecasters believe.

“I think some of the skills we will need in the future will involve lots of creativity, critical thinking and maybe social interactions,” she said.

This article first appeared on ACS Information Age.