- Once upon a time, employers were responsible for upskilling employees. In the coming era of job disruption, knowledge is the key currency and employees will need to learn new skills themselves – and stay resilient
If you want a shocking assessment, warts and all, of what the future working world has in store for us and our stressed-out millennials, you can do worse than start with Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).
The self-mocking former head of Britain's Open University insists that he is a "glass-half-full kind of guy", but as he walks through the future pastures of work, many might prefer for that glass to contain a stiff whisky or two.
This is a world of change on steroids in which mobile phones " "those weapons of mass distraction" " are both empowering and a source of unprecedented mental stress. He predicts that one of our most important future skills is going to be resilience.
And if the internet and smartphones have changed everyone's world in the past two decades, then we have seen nothing yet. With the launch of 5G-based systems in the coming 18 months, this "great disrupter" is going to disrupt still more. We just have to get prepared for it. As Bean says: "Shift happens!"
We already know that 50 per cent of existing jobs will disappear in the next 20 years: "Hard skills will still matter, but they are perishable," Bean says. "The only enduring skills will be soft skills, and future jobs will be soft-skill intensive. Knowledge becomes a critically important currency."
When greybeards like myself left university in the early 1970s, the life plan had a comfortable symmetry to it: after five years of early-life play, and 20 years in education, we could expect 40 years of steadily progressing through a single company, which provided a stable salary, a secure pension, and a life out to pasture from 65 " if you lived that long.
As technologies evolved, so the company would take responsibility for the continuous top-up of skills.
The world of work facing Bean's 90,000 RMIT students could hardly be more different: "Today's 15-year-olds will on average have 17 employers, and at least five quite distinct careers."
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For this, Bean says, the education sector has to reinvent entirely its development model and how education modules are consumed.
Evaporating in front of us is the idea of a cosseted, campus-based four-year degree, and in its place is a steady, lifelong, self-directed accumulation of "micro-credentials" which build up into "digital badges", with each new skill etched on each person's blockchain.
He expects future employers to look less for specific degree qualifications, but more for a wide range of soft skills that he is in the process of building into a Future Skills course launched in 2018 and available to all RMIT students.
And what are the "micro-credentials" that make up these future skills? They include communication skills, collaboration skills, enterprise-readiness, leadership, global awareness, work-readiness, innovative capacities, critical thinking, sustainability, and community engagement.
Resilience has to be added to the skill set, but is proving difficult to capture. Bean says his own view is that much resilience starts with teenagers being encouraged by parents to take up part-time jobs, and being exposed to the world of work at the earliest possible stage.
On this, I am on the same page. My first job at age 11 was as a newspaper delivery boy, hurtling on my bike across town before dawn every morning before cycling to school by 8.30.
By the time I was 18, I had worked for the Post Office, on farms, in a can-making factory, in a cold storage plant on 12-hour shifts deep-freezing blackberries, in a petrol station " even in a scrap-metal yard learning the dubious art of weighing down truckload consignments of copper with water to make them heavier.
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When asked what I learned from this kaleidoscope of teenage assignments, I have always been clear: I was able to learn which jobs I never wanted to do, and why. I am sure that provides a resilience of sorts.
As skills needs evolve, Bean has perfected the art of responding by designing and "bringing to market" at RMIT new micro-credential courses within 12 weeks.
Implicit in this new future world of work is the reality for most in the workforce that fewer and fewer employers will have responsibility for continuously building the skills you need for future jobs. More and more in the workforce face the daunting challenge of taking personal responsibility for the new skills they will need to acquire, and when and how to acquire them.
To those employers stressing over investing in the skills of their staff, who then quickly move on to the next of their 17 jobs, Bean is blunt: "People often tell me they worry about investing in people who then leave. My answer is simple: what happens to your business if you don't train or develop them, and they stay?"
The reality facing today's 18-year-olds is inevitable: knowledge is the key currency, and it will need to be developed personally and continuously over a lifetime of work that will probably stretch into their 70s. No longer can you emerge from a university aged 22 with a sparkling degree certificate that will provide a lifetime meal ticket.
This same tricky reality applies equally to a 40-year-old mother of two who wants to get back to work after raising a family for 15 years, or a 60-year-old who wants or needs to work beyond the official retirement age. Like our millennial youth, they too will need to build digital literacy and a wallet-load of "micro-credentials".
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Clear and obvious as this future may be, Bean acknowledges that most universities, education ministries or even employers are still on the nursery slopes of making appropriate adjustments: the "reinvention of the education development model" has barely begun and faces resistance in many directions.
The 90,000 students at RMIT may be among a lucky few beginning to accumulate the "micro-credentials" that will secure their working futures, but that leaves many thousands who remain vulnerable as their "hard skills" perish.
"I hope I have been able to provoke a few thoughts," Bean concludes. "But, if not, at least you can tell your children that you have met Mr Bean."
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view
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