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Are we the robots taking our jobs?

Open your social media feed and it’s likely you’ll catch a glimpse of an alarming headline warning new forms of technology are going to displace employment. In tabloid terms: robots will steal your job.

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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.

Structure

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.

Misinterpreted

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.

Assistance

Another peek into the digital workplace future cam early in July with the in launch of Jamie, a digital assistant designed to assist customers launched by ANZ.

The artificial intelligence service is the work of NZ group Soul Machine, which has created digital similar assistants for companies including Air New Zealand, Autodesk, NatWest and Daimler Financial Services.

More to it

What we need to remember is there is much more to education than training people to do jobs.  The availability of education for all of a nation’s citizens has long been regarded a central tenet of democratic societies.

On the one hand education is democratic in it can offer people life choices they otherwise wouldn’t have. Public education is especially relevant in terms of enabling people to build better and more prosperous lives for themselves and their families.  It is education which means one’s life options do not need to be limited by birthright.

Education is central to democracy as well because both can work towards developing a set of social values rested on freedom of speech, political engagement, refusal of dogmatic knowledge, free inquiry justice, open dialogue and resistance to domination and authoritarianism.

Without these things our lives and work would be reduced to the instrumental pursuit of economic production and exchange, devoid of any meaning beyond trying hard to come out on top in an increasingly hostile and precarious labour market.  That’s not much of a life.

Instead it is a democratic way of life rested on community, cooperation, collective freedoms and joint prosperity which education at all levels can foster as a set of lived social ideals.

Married with the rapid changes we are seeing in technology, and the disruptions they entail, it is this form of education which might just ensure the future of work is one not just where robots don’t steal our jobs, but where we don’t allow ourselves to be treated like robots. 

Carl Rhodes is a Professor and Sarah Kaine is an Associate Professor at the University of Technology Sydney

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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