Helping Australia transition to a better future

Remember the 2010 CDAA National Conference? It was titled Greening Career Development, and the conference was described in the conference program as “bring[ing] into focus the important issues of sustainable workforces and careers”. Then the national debate shifted. Yet transition programs continue, and they will provide one of career practitioners’ most critical contributions.

To explore this opportunity, let’s start with three observations.

During the last 18 months we have experienced continuing and variable psycho-social, economic, health, educational and work impacts. What is now clear, as highlighted in Walsh et al’s report Life, Disrupted, is “what appeared to be new economic challenges were, in fact, pre-exiting social issues magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic”.

In my 2017 CDAA National Conference keynote I advocated for expanding our disciplinary base, for the profession to be transdisciplinary, particularly concerning theory and labour market dynamics, and for advanced discourse analysis, particularly around skills and the framing of education and work.

Transdisciplinarity: The concept of career is not the property of any one theoretical or disciplinary view, yet our profession primarily taps only a few viewpoints. Given we face major challenges to human survival, we risk missing out on ideas and information of value to ourselves, our clients and our profession. If we’re unaware of what other disciplines contribute we may remain ignorant of the rich resources already in existence and action already taken.

Advanced discourse analysis: Our ability to make sense of the present, the immediate and longer-term future is helped by an ability to question popular narratives about how work is socially constructed. Nuanced analysis is largely missing from dominant discourse, which relies heavily on simplification, hyperbole, privileged voices, and limited, questionable, ahistorical information.

During CDAA’s 2021 event “The Real Future of Work” members questioned the dominant skills narrative, sought useful and usable career information, and wanted career development to be a more influential voice.

With these three observations in mind there are critical issues at the individual, organisational and community levels, for practitioners and the career development profession to consider.

The issues listed below highlight where transdisciplinary is critical. There are several specific aspects of contemporary work discourse, also set out below, that need nuanced attention to inform career services, debate, and advocacy. After describing areas of concern, I suggest some possibilities for individual and collective action.

Historical context: The “future of work” discourse presents the 21st century as special, tends to be overly optimistic or pessimistic, focuses on skills, gives pre-eminence to technology and its disruptiveness and transformativeness, and is driven by privileged voices, including big business, media, consultancies and think tanks.

An alternative to this discourse sees time as a continuum, with technology impacts, and skills training, shortages, gaps and mismatches as having been agonised over in previous centuries. Most of the so-called “21st century skills” are not new. Much of the future of work discourse is based on questionable methodologies, poor definitions, and it encourages unhelpful fear-mongering. And yes, technology is changing, but anything digital is not by definition better than non-digital.

Future context – dealing with uncertainty: Career development theory suggests practitioners help clients build skills to better handle uncertainty. Uncertainty is a complex, and often ill-defined, concept. Uncertainties are not all the same. Compare the likelihood of a toilet paper shortage, catching the COVID-19 virus, completing an overseas gap year, or when the next flood, bushfire, drought, or earthquake will strike. Given the fear-laden “future of work” narrative, practitioners need a more nuanced analysis that distinguishes improbability, ambiguity, unpredictability, chance events, informed guesses and speculation.

The idea of the “new normal” needs questioning. Ignoring history makes the recent “normal” seem unremarkable. As Walsh et al point out in Life, Disrupted, some types of uncertainty are manufactured to the benefit of some, and the disadvantage of others. Accepting precarious employment conditions as “normal” helps place the onus and cost on workers to live with perpetual uncertainty, adjusting, adapting, and repeatedly upskilling. The “new normal” for some people will be anything but normal.

We know that mental health has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, and will continue to be a factor affecting career decisions. Key insights in Australia’s Mental Health Think Tank’s report on COVID-19 and Australia’s mental health are that: “Australia is facing a “shadow pandemic” of deteriorating mental health” and

“The impact of the pandemic on mental health appears to have disproportionately burdened certain sections of Australian society, including: young people; females; those in COVID-related work; people living with a disability or existing mental health issue; as well as those on low incomes, experiencing job loss or living in poor-quality housing conditions.”

Resilience is receiving much attention, with a mountain of government activity, including establishing specialised agencies with a disaster and emergency focus. The Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia (IIER-Australia) has partnered with Global Access Partners (GAP) to develop proposals for the establishment of a National Resilience Framework for Australia. Their report, Australia – A Complacent Nation: our reactions are too little, too late, and too short-sighted, points out that: “A dynamic approach to resilience is necessary. It is important that resilience is not seen simply as a rebound to a previous state.” The report covers a broad range of challenges and states: “We should not underestimate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; it will be extensive, long-lasting, and damaging. It intersects in complex ways with the social, political, economic, and ecological challenges facing Australia (and the rest of the world.)”. A critical part of being resilient, it says, is to make improvements, to create a better future.

Resilience exists at multiple levels, such as individual, organisational, and community. What role can practitioners play in debunking misinformation, building media and digital literacy, and advocating for a better future rather than just adapting to the ways of the pre-COVID-19 labour market?

Evaluating information sources: There’s no shortage of reports and research relevant to career development. However, our ability to assess the validity and value of this material is essential to inform our practice. The Professional Standards for Australian Career Development Practitioners includes both Core and Specialist Competencies related to research and information, under Labour Market Information, Technology, Information and Resources, and Research Skills (which focuses on conducting research). The behaviours associated with judging the value of research reports are not specified. The closest behaviour is “Maintain, retrieve and interpret information effectively to assist clients” (6a).

Are we sufficiently skilled in judging the methodology, sample base, questions explored, conclusions drawn, author/s or authoring body? Professional development could include modules on assessing and evaluating sources, such as that outlined by ANU. This competency would then enable us to better serve clients who may be tapping questionable career information.

Skills language: Skills are social constructs, assumed to be neutral, readily categorised, one-dimensional. Multiple disciplines discuss skills, using unique and overlapping classifications and terminology. Removing unhelpful binary distinctions from the skill lexicon, like hard/soft, is an uphill battle. While the Australian Skills Classification is designed to provide a common language, it mixes skills, tasks, and competencies. These skill definitions differ from those used in career tools on JobOutlook. Skill levels used – Low, Intermediate, High and Basic, Expert, are confusing. Plus, contextual processes and skill inter-relationships are largely ignored.

A more nuanced analysis of skill behaviours is needed to assist clients. Applicants need to demonstrate their ability to do a job by explaining how they use multiple skills in a given set of circumstances. If people don’t understand skill terminology, and are unable to apply multiple skill terms to their own behaviour, they are disadvantaged in the labour market. If people facing redeployment, redundancy or transitions are unable to see the transferability of their skills, they too will be disadvantaged. Without more refined behavioural distinctions, they will have difficulty making a case for higher levels of skill ability.

Human relationships skills: Most jobs need human relationships skills, such as communication, interpersonal, teamwork and customer service skills. These skills have a long history of being down-graded, gendered, less valued, particularly when linked to caring roles. How these skills are socially constructed needs continuing attention, as does their analysis to show their context, detail, and level of sophistication.

Behaviours comprising a skill are inadequately specified. Take persuasion, a critical skill during a pandemic. Does it only mean changing a person’s mind? What about behaviours that aid the process, such as using tact, engaging in give and take, compromising, enabling face-saving, or understanding another’s viewpoint? And when does persuasion become negotiation or manipulation?

Successful industry transitions depend on highly sophisticated human relationships skills. Race for 2030’s report, Developing the Future Energy Workforce, takes a socio-technical perspective and highlights the need for skills “related to the complexities of raising awareness, communicating and convening dialogue across a range of sectors and disciplines, and fostering the shared vision and commitment between diverse actors to make transitions work”.

Skill inter-relationships: The inter-relationships between skills are largely ignored. We have witnessed the direct impact of inter-related skill failure. Poor “21st century skills” (like teamwork, planning and organising, and problem solving), and ill-informed, mediocre communication have impacted Australia’s vaccine roll-out and international standing.

While online tools, such as the Australian Skills Classification’s skills clusters, endeavour to show skill-related jobs, resources are needed that contextually demonstrate the links between roles and skills across organisations, sectors and industries. SBS’s series Inside Central Station provides insight into how diverse jobs support each other for the overall functioning of Sydney’s rail network. One of the best tools I’ve seen is that of the World Economic Forum, which uses web diagrams to show how a wide range of skills within an industry, such as Media, Entertainment and Sport, are linked to each other.

Earlier this century Australia dipped into the “skill ecosystem” concept as a way of tackling some skill issues. A skill ecosystem, as defined by the Skills in Context guide is: “a self-sustaining network of workforce skills and knowledge in an industry or region.” The concept is regarded by some as somewhat problematic, and there were problems with skill ecosystem projects undertaken.

Nevertheless, this work has value and widens the scope of thinking about skills and their inter-relationships. An analysis of human factors in autonomous shipping (Hynnekleiv et al 2020) applied the skills ecosystem model and socio-technical systems concept to the maritime industry. The authors identified a high degree of interdependence as one of four elements needed to support a maritime skill ecosystem – interconnections between parts of the system to allow communication and influence. One of the most important skills for this future sociotechnical system was communication, the ability to work in teams and share information.

This research is part of the Human Autonomous Enable (HUMANE) project which uses the socio-technical system concept and an interdisciplinary approach to the design of human-machine networks. Australian examples of sector or skill ecosystem analyses are Infrastructure Australia’s report on national infrastructure capability (which includes an analysis of skills data limitations) and the Australian government’s work on the drones and newly emerging Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) sector.

Transitions: While there is some career development research about industry, sector and career transitions, much relevant material lies outside the career development profession. Without transdisciplinarity, career practitioners can miss vital information.

Australia has learnt from past transition programs, such as the closure of car manufacturing. While much of the national global warming debate presents options as either/or choices (e.g. jobs vs the environment), the reality is far more complex. We know when coal-fired power plants are due to close. Businesses, sectors, industries are making changes to reduce their carbon footprint. Yet market transformation programs, such as Race for 2030’s work on developing the future energy workforce, or the work of the CRC on digital health, don’t appear to include career development stakeholders.

Major industry transitions are complex, demanding exercises. The literature on “just transitions” explores issues concerning equitable outcomes. The Stockholm Environment Institute has studied four major industrial transitions from across the globe, including the closure of Australia’s BHP steelworks plant at Newcastle in 1999. Their report sets out principles that capture a range of equity issues and they examine lessons learnt, one of which is about the need for nuanced measures of actual changes. Total employment figures can mask the reality of new employment that is less secure and lower paid.

On a different scale of analysis, MacKenzie and Marks, researchers in work and employment studies, examined the relationship between restructuring and work-based identity among retired UK telecoms engineers, exploring occupational identity, occupational community and their roles in navigating transitions in the life course. Given the importance of occupational identity to these workers, it may mean practitioners need skills in “reverse-engineering” a person’s career narrative to assist them to make career transitions

Ideas for action
  1. So what can be done to enhance the nuances of analyses, build useful career information, and raise career development voices? Here are some questions and suggestions.
  2. How can career development associations build links with sector and industry transition researchers and programs, such as CRCs?
  3. How can/should the career development profession respond to systemic inequalities that are shaping our society?
  4. Provide feedback to the National Skills Commission to assist with developing career information websites.
  5. Professional development (PD) could increase transdisciplinarity by tapping relevant evidence, concepts and theories (e.g. skills ecosystems, socio-technical systems, industry and sector transition experience, just transitions) to inform practice, increase awareness, foster understanding of career development, and build networks.
  6. Career development associations could offer PD on how to:
  • evaluate information sources to discern their value and support clients in interpreting career information.
  • identify when mental health is affecting a person and know how to respond appropriately.
  • build media literacy so clients are helped to select credible career information.
  • discuss current discourse inadequacies with clients.
  • “reverse engineer” a person’s career narrative to support career transitions.
  • analyse the nature of uncertainties to help with building client adaptability.
  • analyse skill behaviours to identify the nuances of skill sophistication (e.g. with human relationships skills).
  • tap resources that explain skill inter-relationships.
  • identify occupational information outside the limits of career information websites. As it’s not possible for career websites to include all possible occupations, where else can we find information? (For example, I recently listened to a BBC interview with a sports architect. The climate think tank Beyond Zero Emissions has produced a report The Million Jobs Plan which shows how in just five years, renewables and low emissions projects can deliver 1.8 million new jobs in the regions and communities where these are needed most.)
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.