The future of work is now

13 June, 2018

With the rise of emergent technologies and increased automation across industries, the growing push towards a future of work is seeing many start to question how we can best prepare ourselves, and future generations, for a labour market unlike any we’ve ever known.

This issue was recently addressed at the UTS Big Thinking: The Future of Work is Now event, that saw Maile Carnegie (Group Executive Digital Banking at ANZ) and Sophie Hawkins (UTS Bachelor of Technology and Innovation student) joined by Professor Peter Flemming (UTS Business School) and UTS Deputy Vice Chancellor (Education & Students) Professor Shirley Alexander to examine how innovation and new technologies will disrupt current and future work practice.

The panel was moderated by Professor Carl Rhodes (UTS Business School) who opened discussions by highlighting the importance of education in the face of these oncoming challenges, noting that “a successfully integrated school, VET, and higher education system can ensure that we have a workforce equipped for the jobs of the future.”

But beyond education, and the increased shift towards a more “futuristic approach” to curriculum, whereby universities are beginning to look at preparing students for jobs that don’t currently exist, the existing employment landscape has already started shifting dramatically. As Professor Rhodes reported:

“… for the first time, less than half of Australian workers are in paid, full-time employment with leave. Work is increasingly casualised and precarious, exacerbated even further by the growth of the so-called ‘gig economy’…”

With this context setting the scene for the discussions, talk quickly turned to the role universities play in preparing students for these future work trends.

Are universities keeping pace with the rate of change in the workforce?

Professor Alexander was first to respond, raising the issue of free learning resources such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offered by universities worldwide, and how they challenged traditional university teaching models that previously relied on rote memorisation and note taking: “We can’t continue to charge students to come [to university] if they are going to get the same experience that they can online.” This, she says, is what underlies UTS’s campus design that is based on collaborative learning spaces, encouraging the development of soft skills alongside technical ability.

Hawkins agreed, drawing on her own experience studying the new Bachelor of Technology and Innovation, a course based around transdisciplinary practice and cross-faculty learning, as a way in which universities were keeping up.

Despite these advancements in university practice, the divide between industry expectations and graduate abilities are still at the forefront of such discussions. Carnegie highlighted this, pointing to the disconnect between leading university courses and what industry are saying they need: “… the most popular courses are things like accounting and business and banking… and what businesses are saying is that we are looking for data scientists, and looking for people with cloud [computing skills]…”

Professor Alexander, recognising this gap in graduates, agreed: “If anything [kept me awake at night] that would be it… We are often accused by industry of not putting on courses that are relevant, but we’ve been finding that we do put on really contemporary, cutting edge courses but the students don’t enrol…”

Redefining successful careers

This apparent disconnect between student enrolment and industry demands reflects a greater societal divergence between what were once considered straightforward pathways to successful careers, and the current industry demands.

Professor Alexander noted that many students choose to do accounting or law because of a belief in future employment – a belief, she says, that may no longer hold true: “… they’d be much better off doing courses like [a Bachelor of Technology and Innovation], but we put it on and they don’t come”.

Carnegie agreed, connecting this disparity to a misunderstanding of how much industry and the workforce has changed between generations. “[There’s] this [mistaken] belief that what was good for me and my generation is going to work in the future”. A later questioner mirrored this belief, the year 12 student noting that parents are not talking to their kids about career paths in data and innovation or computer science, instead encouraging more traditional degrees.

A shift towards lifelong learning

One issue that is often talked about, is the fear that automation will push people out of employment, replacing large swathes of industries with machines. Professor Flemming disagrees, arguing that unemployment is not likely to rise: “the use of automation isn’t really designed to get rid of work, its designed to reshape work…”

It may, however, replace parts of a role, leaving employees to work with these new technologies, resulting in a need for continual upskilling, more commonly referred to as lifelong learning. Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education reiterated this point, noting that schooling can no longer be expected to fully prepare students for the rest of their lives, and should instead prepare them to be lifelong learners.

In answer, Professor Alexander pointed to an answer: micro credentials. Short courses that can supplement the skills and knowledge a worker already has, enabling them to embrace these changes and upskill alongside them.

“… there is a great need for education to provide these smaller courses, these micro credentials, so that people who are midway through their career can upskill and learn some of the digital technologies, data science and so on.”

This in and of itself, could perhaps provide a safe answer to the rising fear of automation making jobs redundant across many industries.

While there is no definitive answer to what the future of work will look, the consensus that came out of the UTS Big Thinking: The Future of Work is Now event was not as bleak as some news headlines may have you believe. While innovation and technology are certainly changing the nature of work and creating an employment landscape we cannot predict, education, at least, seems a viable bastion against the rise of the machine.

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