Beyond the scare bait, the future of work is an issue of critical importance to Australia’s future prosperity and social wellbeing – and education is at its core.
"Rather than robots stealing our jobs, are we just training people to be more like robots - technically proficient but not necessarily socially skilled?”
A successfully integrated school, VET and higher-education system can ensure Australia has a workforce equipped for the vocational and professional challenges of the future. This is a critical policy issue for business and government - and the subject of vexed political debate in Australia.
It is true the massive technological changes we are seeing will have an impact on employment and training for employment. A famous McKinsey study from 2017 suggests as many as 800 million jobs could be lost to automation by 2030.
When it comes to university education, there is a trend away from the traditional approach of training people in either critical inquiry or institutionalised professional skills.
That trend is being replaced by a futuristic approach. The idea we should ‘prepare people for jobs which don’t yet exist’ has become a common - if not hackneyed - refrain.
At the same time we are seeing changes to the structure of employment. Research from the Australia Institute has shown for the first time less than half of Australian workers are in paid full-time employment with leave.
The same report – from the AI’s Centre for Future Work found 31.7 per cent of all employment is now part time - the highest percentage ever recorded.
Work is increasingly casualised and precarious, exacerbated even further by the growth of the so-called gig economy where workers are employed on commercial rather than employment contracts, giving them no access to established workers rights.
These matters are of clear importance to us all. A recent audience survey of a UTS Big Thinking: The Future of Work event revealed some interesting perspectives on these issues.
The survey asked people about the key issues they were personally facing in terms of their experience of work, their thoughts on how workplaces are changing, and whether tertiary education is still delivering what is needed for the new world of work.
The top three concerns were lack of training, impact of technology and general job security. One of the stand-out insights concerned the ways employers were (or more accurately were not) supporting their employees.
Only about half of the respondents said their current employer was supportive of professional development or offered its staff technical training. Less than a third agreed a strategy for dealing with technological changes had been shared with staff.
This is consistent with a longer-term trend of employers off-loading responsibility for development and training of the workforce to the state. This is further intensified by the simultaneous perpetuation of the idea individuals themselves are solely and independently responsible for updating their skills and maintaining employability.
Despite this, the survey also showed the audience believe universities were an important source of the skills needed in the future with about two thirds believing a postgraduate degree will be important for success in years to come.
What kind of skills and training are people saying they need to navigate the new world of work? From the survey, skills such as communication, problem-solving and critical thinking were seen as most important for future success.
Despite this, the consensus was while recent graduates have highly developed technical skills they are much less developed in interpersonal and so called soft skills.
It seems the legitimate focus on science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) areas has been misinterpreted as a need to de-emphasise the types of skills which remain critical to the many and varied forms of work which require social interaction and the capacity to engage thoughtfully within civil society.
At the risk of appearing glib, we might conclude rather than robots stealing our jobs, we are just training people to be more like robots - technically proficient but not necessarily socially skilled or politically engaged.
What then is the future for precariously employed workers whose employers do not support training? What will happen if tomorrow’s workers are technically proficient but socially inept?
The issues facing workers today are not just technical, they are political. Central to the changes we are seeing in the broader landscape are established trends towards increased wealth inequality, entrenched institutional sexism most recently revealed through the #metoo movement, persistent gaps in pay between men and women, the steady decrease in participation in trade unionism and with it the erosion of hard-won worker’s rights.
Education has, perhaps more than ever, a central place in addressing these issues. If all we do is teach people to be tomorrow’s technocrats then we have done both them - and society more generally - a disservice.
Being a compliant technician who cannot engage in political debate, resist wrongdoing, or stand up for one’s own and other people’s rights does not hold for a bright future.