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The 'triple A response' to workplaces of the future: automation, alteration or addition

A conversation with Ed Husic, Shadow Minister for the Digital Economy & Future of Work, who gives his considered opinion on what the future of workplaces will look like.

Getting straight to the point Ed, what do you believe the future of workplaces will look like?

While it’s hard to be certain about this, the obvious observation is that future workplaces will continue to become more digital.

The less obvious answer is the way we will give digital skills to people who never needed them before. 

And also obscured from view is the likely way people will work with each other in future workplaces. Will we see a faster rise in the generationally driven shift towards flatter hierarchies, more collaborative workplaces that are also more demanding of need for quicker results? There is no question that we are in the middle of a massive evolution in how we work and what our work looks like. 

And while we focus a lot on the impact of tech, there’s a less recognised by-product: work in the future will be more human-centric, levering more off creativity or focusing on people-to-people activity, like caring roles or service-oriented roles.

When we’re building the workplace and workforce of the future, what can we do to prepare for the rapidly changing scenario?

Talking about the coming evolution is crucial for preparation and maximising the benefits of change. It can also help recast the conversation from an anxious start point to a more positive one.  

But we can’t just talk, we are going to need to act to ensure that the younger generation are skilled up for digital jobs, developing so-called ‘soft skills’, such as resilience, to help adapt and succeed. 

We also have a responsibility to support two other cohorts: those currently in work and – with an increasingly older society – those who still want to maintain a connection to the world of work in what would have normally been retirement years, such as the Traditionalist generation.

The appetite and ability to tackle age discrimination in employment is also crucial. In an era of endemic skills shortages, we need to find new methods of team development to refresh skills, weld them to experience and apply that to modern workplaces.

There is no question that we are in the middle of a massive evolution in how we work and what our work looks like.

In the workplace of the future, technology will play a bigger role. Will innovative, technological changes necessarily both remove and replace current jobs?

I’ve heard it put recently that jobs that are ‘dull, dirty or dangerous’ are more likely to feel the pressure of automation. It’s been estimated 3.5 million Australian jobs will be affected by technology by 2030. 

Considering our labour force currently stands at 12 million, that is no small figure. But technology is likely to also spawn a triple A response: automation or alteration or addition. Some jobs phase out, others have new roles added to them and then there are new jobs entirely.  

What skills need to be prioritised for our future prosperity and for us to remain competitive, and so workers are able to secure and retain stable jobs?

It has to be the ability to work in a digital world. Australia’s workforce needs to be able to operate in today’s digital world and the digital world we will face in five years. Workers will need to be both digital, reskillable and adaptive. I think these careers will be exciting with many opportunities, but we will need to prepare.

What role can business leaders play in this scenario and how important is their involvement?

Business leaders can play a huge role and if they play that role right, they’ll look after their workforce and build stronger firms in the process. Government and business should work together to understand what skills need prioritising, what support workforces will need for transition, how to approach skills renewal, and how to recruit for the future

The challenge will be how business works together, shedding a territorial approach to workforce development and working across industries to learn from digital disruption.  

We need to see business leading and innovating given the fluidity within labour markets and the way people move between firms – it’s in businesses’ common interests to learn from each other.

What role can secondary education play?

Education, primary, secondary, vocational and tertiary are all going to have roles to play across the workforce. We need an integrated view of learning that challenges the linear view of skills acquisition, where we think people only learn or invest in their skills when they’re young. 

Secondary education is a key area of our existing education system and will be for many years to come. Within that, there is a crucial need to understand students’ strengths and ensure the curriculum continues to meet the needs of the workplace and prepares students for further education as well. 

I am also particularly optimistic about vocational education – TAFEs can and should play a big part in mid-career skills renewal.

Can we learn anything in this space from overseas countries, whether in workplace design or team development?

Other countries are already preparing for change. I was in Singapore recently and saw firsthand how the government is recasting its approach to skills development. It is investing in lifelong learning accounts, and I heard first hand from Singaporeans who welcomed and made use of these measures.  

While this may or may not be something we can replicate, we should take a leaf out of our regional neighbours’ book and start preparing better for the changes ahead. Regardless of whether or not technology has the impact predicted, investing in human capital will always play a positive role in the growth of economies. 

Automation has been a familiar feature within economies since the industrial revolution. While change is a constant, preparation isn’t. The best way to take out the sting of fear and anxiety associated with this issue is to show as a nation we’ve planned for change and can bring people along with us.

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