The future of work

The CSIRO’s ‘Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce’ report provides some useful information about how the future might pan out and how to adapt to it.

Before examining the report’s content, let’s consider the purpose of the report. The Foreword points out that this report is “an important foundation for policy makers grappling with the future of work in Australia”. The report examines “plausible futures for jobs and employment markets in Australia over the coming twenty years”. So this is a strategic document aimed at informing “strategic choices of governments, companies, communities and individuals in planning for economic growth, productive industries, rewarding careers, cohesive communities and improved quality of life”. [Executive Summary p. 7]

While acknowledging that changes will have a downside that needs to be considered, the report is generally upbeat about the ‘exciting opportunities’ the future will bring. This bias points to four concerns with the report, concerns that may apply to any report if taken in isolation.

The report suggests that now is different from before, with the current period in history characterised by “a combination of forces likely to be associated with greater, faster and different transitions than previously experienced”. Yet, a number of the factors listed have been around for some time, such as the ageing population, the end of the mining boom, growth in technology.

To support the uniqueness case, the report suggests that “there are several factors creating unique conditions – a ‘perfect storm’ – at this point in history”. [p.7] This is a bizarre metaphor to use. This metaphor is usually used as synonymous for a worst case scenario, a rare combination of circumstances that create a calamitous situation. In this report the metaphor is applied to a positive confluence of events, given the upbeat nature of the writing.

The authors compiled a healthy list of economic, social, environment and geopolitical issues. Climate change is listed as one of the environmental issues likely to impact on Australia. Despite CSIRO producing many publications on climate change, including one that states “Climate change is one of the greatest ecological, economic and social challenges facing us today” and “The impacts of climate change on Australia, its industries, and people over the coming decades and centuries will be significant, and changes can now be clearly seen in stresses on our water supplies, and farming, changed natural ecosystems, reduced seasonal snow cover, and extreme events” [p. 137] climate change is only briefly mentioned as affecting the labour market [p.25]. Why it is not regarded as a factor likely to have a serious impact on the economy is not explained.

While it is understandable that a report that ‘underpins’ the work of a government department is relatively neutral when it comes to exploring policy implications, the overarching question – What kind of society do we want to live in? remains unasked. While pointing to the range of choices to make and the political nature of such choices, the upbeat tone of the report could lead a reader to think that changes are all worth having. For example, do we want a society in which a large number of people compete for work in a freelancer model?

The bulk of the references are recent. When reporting on what might happen in the future there is value in checking what has happened in the past and whether past predictions were accurate. Where are the reports that check the accuracy of mining and manufacturers’ predictions of jobs they will create with new mines and factories? Have past megatrends and new job predictions been assessed for accuracy? Have there been studies of the impact of major business closures such as BHP on Port Kembla? What are the lessons and how can we anticipate the impact of potential future closures on communities? [e.g. Port Augusta]

Career advice tips

What can we take from this report to use today? There are useful points both for people wanting to manage their careers and for career practitioners providing advice.

Workforce transitions: How people move from one job to another and how industries move from one labour market structure to another are crucial transitions. People will need the “capability to handle a career dead-end (or job loss) and create their own job in in another space.” [P. 14] People will need to be resilient and have a range of skills which the report unfortunately refers to as ‘soft skills’, including personal, interpersonal and organisational skills. Transitions include tapered retirement, working within a freelancer model of work, and post-automation experience.

Education and training: The bar is rising on the need for education and training to enter jobs as well as on retraining as the labour market changes. Most people will need some level of digital literacy and STEM skills [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] are likely to be needed in many better-paid jobs. These implications need to be tempered with comments that employers may be pushing over-qualification for jobs and the possibility that STEM jobs aren’t as readily available as implied.

Labour market information: the report points to the need for improved data on predicting jobs and tasks likely to be automated, identifying new jobs and what types of jobs are suited to the freelancer model. The report speculates about six new jobs which may emerge given the megatrends and scenarios mentioned, though cautioning that “there is no statistical or mathematical modelling technique which can be used to forecast jobs of the future with precision”. [P. 76] These jobs include big data analysts, complex decision support analysts, remote-controlled vehicle operators. Some of these jobs already exist. For example Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations in Pilbara, Western Australia, use the world’s largest fleet of autonomous trucks. Jobs in cyber security, for which there is already a demand, could be added to this list.

Don’t put your report reading eggs in one basket

As the Productivity Commission points out in its June 2016 report ‘Digital Disruption: What do governments need to do?’ “the disruptive potential of digital technologies has become a hot topic in recent years.” There’s a risk of sabre-rattling predictions that strike fear into the heart of a person seeking guidance on decisions about training, education and work choices. The Productivity Commission explores the history of the term ‘disruptive’ then offers the following definition:

“A general and more policy-relevant characterisation of disruptive technologies is that they are developments that drive substantial change across the economy for many firms, households or workers, with impacts that impose significant costs of adjustment as they make capital obsolete and leave some workers significantly underutilised for some time. In other words, ‘big, sometimes fast and always unruly”. [p. 17]

When reading reports like CSIRO’s it’s wise to read a range of complementary material in order to place predictions into context and provide a sounder basis for decisions. Chapter 3 of the Productivity Commission’s report on Workers and Society, is worth reading. Also worth reading is ‘Australian Jobs 2017’ which “presents an overview of the current labour market and highlights the major changes which have occurred, including for industries and occupations.” Note that this report does include a one page summary of CSIRO’s report.

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.