Peak human potential: preparing workers for the digital economy

Wednesday 12 June 2019 by Dr Sean Gallagher

Director of the Centre for the New Workforce, Dr Sean Gallagher.

Dr Sean Gallagher is director of the Centre for the New Workforce at Swinburne.

In summary

  • Opinion piece by Dr Sean Gallagher, Director of the Centre for the New Workforce, Swinburne University of Technology

Australia’s workforce – and, by extension, its economy – is on the precipice of massive change. Digital technologies are displacing human labour at an accelerating rate, and job insecurity is on the rise.

Up against AI and automation, workers need to adapt. The question is, how? Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce set out to answer this question by surveying 1,000 working Australians across the economy, to understand how they expect to succeed in the future of work.

The research revealed two remarkable trends that challenge orthodox approaches to educating and training workers.

The first trend is that the more an industry is disrupted by digital technologies, the more that its workers value ‘social competencies’ like collaboration, empathy and entrepreneurial skills. Social competencies are uniquely human; they are less vulnerable to being displaced by AI and automation.

Right now, the industries most disrupted by technology are those in the knowledge sector of the economy, such as information, media, telecommunications and finance. Traditional expertise required to do jobs in these industries remains fundamentally important. But knowledge sector workers place almost equal importance on social competencies.

By contrast, workers in the least-digitised asset-intensive industries like mining, construction and utilities value traditional expertise three times more than social competencies. In the middle – both in terms of degree of digitisation and how much its workers value traditional expertise – lies the service sector, which employs four of five Australian workers.

Why are knowledge sector workers’ views important? They align with the balanced skill sets forecast by the OECD and McKinsey, and well-described in a 2019 World Economic Forum paper Leading in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: “To be truly successful in new roles, workers need unique ‘combinatorial skill sets’ at the intersection of innately human skills, functional skills, know-how and experience, and technology skills.”

Employers, especially in the technology-trailing sectors of the economy, along with educators must take heed of the growing importance of social competencies for workers in digital environments.

The second trend relates to how workers want to prepare for the future of work. Overwhelmingly, all Australian workers – regardless of education background, income level, industry or age – prefer ‘learning on the job’ as the best way to prepare to work in digital environments. And the more digitally disrupted their industry, the more workers prefer to learn on the job.

This makes sense. Work is where disruption is taking place, not in the classroom. Formal, structured education’s ability to simulate the transforming workplace decreases as the leading edge of technology advances. We must reverse this disconnection by bringing learning and work together.

We propose a new approach called ‘learning-integrated work’, where learning is increasingly taken off-campus and immersed in disruptive work environments – for students and workers alike. For instance, in agile environments, in coworking spaces, on freelancing platforms or in Industry 4.0 settings.

In learning-integrated work, the goal is less about producing results and more on learning how to create new value by nurturing workers’ combinatorial skill sets and developing tacit knowledge. Value creation – work that enhances an organisation’s competitive advantage – will distinguish the ‘learning worker’ alongside technologies that are increasingly sophisticated at producing.

Some examples of learning workers in Australia:

  • The factory floor workerwho optimises the manufacturing processes they oversee
  • The designer who uses virtual reality to improve the design process
  • The medical specialist using AI’s diagnostic ability to free up their time to focus on bespoke patient care
  • The agile team of cross-functional experts developing a new product

The Australian government invested in building the National Broadband Network, the national infrastructure for the digital revolution. Now it’s time for Australia to invest in our workers – with the skills and competencies required to thrive in the digital, automated future – and build a national learning infrastructure.

We need to lift all workers into the digital economy by providing them basic digital training. Many of these future skills are best provided through vocational education, especially within a more coherent tertiary education system. But for learning and work to converge, we need a learning infrastructure that brings education providers and employers together, too.

We need to shift learning into future workplaces by trialling new learning approaches delivered through partnerships of education institutions and employers. These learning partnerships would form the foundation of the infrastructure, and focus on developing learning workers, integrating learning into work, and reimagining accreditation. There will be many successful formulas. The AiGroup, Siemens and Swinburne University Industry 4.0 Higher Apprentice Program is an early case study.

Only the government has the policy levers and resources to support digital training, and to coordinate and network this new learning infrastructure across the economy. In a world ever-more hyperconnected, this infrastructure must drive deep connections between educators, employers and government – ultimately enabling all workers to reach peak human potential.

Dr Sean Gallagher is director of the Centre for the New Workforce at Swinburne University of Technology. The national survey report “Peak human potential: preparing Australia’s workforce for the digital future” was released today.