The digital future of work in Australia

Graeme Philipson

A report on the future of work was released on Friday at a grand affair at the Sydney Opera House. The report looks at the effects of technology on the labour market as Australia moves to a ‘sharing economy’, and at the rise of entrepreneurism.

The 104 page report was sponsored by the Australian Computer Society (whose CEO Andrew Johnson chaired the launch event), CSIRO’s Data61, the ANZ Bank, the Commonwealth Department of Employment, and Boston Consulting Group. It is called ‘Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce’ and can be downloaded here.

The report outlines the ‘megatrends’ shaping the future of work, and draws a range of scenarios for employment and Australia’s economy. It also identifies future needs for a digitally skilled workforce and attempts to analyse the challenges faced.

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The megatrends each relate to a specific influence on the workforce over the next 20 years as a consequence of technological advances, digital connectivity, globalisation, and changes in demographics and economic structures. They are divided into six areas:

• Rapid advances in automated systems and artificial intelligence means that robotic devices can perform many tasks more quickly, safely and efficiently than humans.
• Digital technology and the new world of ‘platform economics’ is changing employment markets and organisational structures.
• People will become more entrepreneurial and create their own jobs.
• Australia’s population is ageing with growing life expectancies.
• Increased use of automated systems is raising the complexity of tasks and requiring higher skill levels for entry-level positions.
• Employment growth in the service industries, in particular education and healthcare, has driven jobs creation in recent times.

The report lead author Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, Senior Principal Scientist with CSIRO, spoke of the importance of the scenarios as a guide for future planning.

“This isn’t a story about jobs disappearing. It’s a story about jobs changing. We are entering into an era of rapid technology fuelled disruption that will reshape the landscape for businesses and people’s careers,” Dr Hajkowicz said.

“Job seekers of the future need to develop skills, capabilities and aptitudes which complement (not compete with) artificial intelligence, computerised systems and robotics. That’s the idea behind the ‘digitally enabled workforce’. It means a workforce where computers are increasing the productivity of workers, giving them better and more rewarding careers along with increasing the productivity of the Australian economy”.

Officially launching the report was federal Employment Minister Michealia Cash, whose schedule meant she left the event without being able to answer any questions. The meat of the event was a panel Q&A session, led by Dr Hajkowicz, with CSIRO’s Dr Cecile Paris, ANZ Bank CTO Dr Patrick Maes, CTO of ANZ Bank, Secretary of the Department of Employment Ms Renée Leon, and Boston Consulting Group Managing Director Brad Noakes.

The key theme in the panel session was the speed of change. Ms Leon said the rate at which the transition will take place will be a major challenge.

“There will be many new jobs in the digital world, but they won’t necessarily be ones that people can seamlessly transition into,” she said. “We will need to make sure that government provides a strong social safety net both to ensure people aren’t falling completely out of work and provides the retraining they will need to go into new industries and jobs.”

“We’re already seeing this with the reduction of manufacturing. People currently working on assembly lines won’t automatically and seamlessly translate into aged care jobs unless we help them see that as an option and train them for it.”

“We shouldn’t be allowing whole cohorts of people to just end up on the scrap heap because we don’t support them into new jobs and new industries.”

“Digitisation of our society is being driven by changing customer expectations, accelerating technology development and evolving industry structures and participants, with some mega trends identified in this report becoming evident,” Ms Leon said.

ANZ’s Dr Maes said the transition from a two-speed, mining-boom fuelled economy to a digital economy will be wide-reaching and will affect jobs across the whole society.

“Therefore intense collaboration between government, academia, start-ups and corporates is required to help build capabilities and industries that create opportunities for the existing and future generations,” Dr Maes said.

Brad Noakes said there is a risk that we underestimate the combined effect of all of the changes. “There are tremendous advantages for us as a country if we embrace these changes, but there’s also real risks, because through the transition there will be structural disadvantages created that we’ll need to manage.

“Many people will want to resist the change happening and try to hold onto industries that are no longer competitive, and jobs that there’s no future for, rather than embracing the need for change,” Mr Noakes said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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