Why machines aren't really taking over the world

Australian Industry Standards
Monday, 30 May, 2022

Why machines aren't really taking over the world

Mention the term “digital transformation” and many see it as the start of a dystopian future where machines and technology take over the world and the opportunities for paid work are limited.

Clearly the convergence of the global pandemic and digital transformation have hastened the adoption of technology at a rate few of us thought possible and rapidly accelerated the future of work.

The World Economic Forum calls it ‘The Great Reset’ as over a matter of months, businesses leapt ahead years in their digital journey. Where we work, how we work and when we work have all been impacted. But is it really the beginning of the end for work and careers as we know them?

Wherever possible and financially viable, repetitive unskilled work will increasingly become automated; think of those cutting-edge automated fulfilment centres. Hazardous work will be replaced by technology: think of drones inspecting underground mine shafts or unsupported voids. This is good news for job roles because work will become both safer, more interesting and varied.

And just as some job roles decline or are redesigned, others are emerging in fields and specialisations that a few years ago were unheard of. But how well we as individuals, businesses and as a nation keep pace with how technology will change job roles depends on how quickly we each commit to lifelong learning.

The Digital Transformation Expert Panel (DTEP) has now released ‘The Learning Country’ — its strategy on what Australia’s Vocational Education and Training (VET) system must do to support our nation’s workforce through the impact of digital transformation. It emphasises that our training system needs to move quickly given predictions* that by 2034:

  • Automation will displace 2.7m Australian workers.
  • Technology will augment 4.5m Australian workers, leading to a 15% capacity uplift to Australian businesses.

The immediate focus of many countries has been on ensuring their citizens are digitally literate and can live and interact safely in a digital world. A second priority has been lifting the digital capability of the nation’s workforce as a whole, so that as workers’ core skills are enhanced or augmented by technology, they can optimise its use. And then there’s the third area of rapid growth, which is in those new and emerging job roles in the actual development, implementation and management of data and technology that powers the digital world.

However, it’s not without irony that many believe the most critical skills that we need to develop to futureproof our working life are those intrinsically human skills that cannot be replicated by an algorithm. Our innate ability to be creative and problem solve, to empathise, to collaborate and communicate are all skills that will start to become increasingly prized in the job market.

Recognising the need to focus on wellbeing and mental health because of moving to remote working is another crucial part of this transition: as we recognise the qualities that humans hold over machines, we also need to recognise and develop the conditions for those attributes to thrive. The future of work will be different, but it will also be more sensitive to the real needs of people while working.

This year alone, public health and economic crises have intensified this urgency and challenged business leaders to redefine the world of work entirely. Widespread lockdowns and remote working arrangements have highlighted other, softer skills that in an increasingly digital world employees — tech-minded or not — are going to increasingly rely on.

Given the scale and speed at which organisations have had to digitally transform over recent months, companies need a workforce that can adapt and grow without a significant impact on their productivity. It means teams must be resilient; confident to adjust to unfavourable circumstances. When it comes to making business-critical decisions, for instance, around whether to close or reopen physical workspaces, managing processes and teams remotely will be crucial to helping keep people safe.

So as much as we talk about the future of work, it’s just as much about the future of skills. In Singapore, the SkillsFuture initiative was created to drive continuous upskilling among employers and individuals. Its framework provides information on career pathways, occupations and emerging skills. SkillsFuture Credit provides a learning account for every citizen aged 25 years and over with an opening credit of S$500 and higher amounts for mid-career workers.

Similarly, France, Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland and Scotland have introduced co-investment schemes involving government, and sometimes the employer and the individual, all with the goal of building a culture of lifelong learning.

In Australia, digital transformation represents a rare and defining opportunity to rapidly grow our productivity. The need to rebuild our post-pandemic economy only serves to magnify the urgency with which we need to harness its potential. To do so, we must build a highly skilled workforce that optimises the innate human capability to learn, and is purposefully nurtured throughout our lives by governments, by industry and by us as individuals.

As set out by the DTEP in its strategy, Australia’s VET sector needs to become a dynamic and innovative learning ecosystem where businesses and existing workers readily turn to upskill and reskill as augmentation and automation continues to evolve each industry.

We need to offset the barriers to learning faced by existing workers through world-class learner support services that exist before, during and importantly, after training. We need to position the VET sector as a partner in Australia’s innovation agenda, both as an enabler to other industries and as a world leader in using technology to enhance teaching, learning and assessment.

To help the nation’s employers and its workforce understand the imperative for upskilling, we will need to leverage the unique role VET plays within society, its grassroots connection to individual workers and businesses, and its key role as part of the larger educational ecosystem. At the same time, we need to promote how VET spans all industries and all levels of our workforce.

While we have talked about lifelong learning since the Sixties, leading digital economies are now enshrining it in strong policy, supported by public-private partnerships, strong connections to the innovation sector and driven through shared investment.

Australia now needs brave thinking to put lifelong learning firmly in place and normalise upskilling and reskilling as a key element of business operations and our day-to-day lives so that, as articulated by the DTEP’s guiding principle, we ‘leave no worker behind’.

Australia’s training system will be central to reskilling the workforce as digital transformation quickly evolves our economy. The DTEP’s strategy tells us how and can be read here.

*Technology impacts on the Australian Workforce (2020) Australian Computer Society and Faethm

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