Australian workers lack the skill set to fully engage with digital technologies and unlock the productivity benefits on offer, according to Jack Hylands, GM Strategy & New Product, RMIT Online. And meeting that demand will require the collaboration of industry and education providers, as well as a new approach to course delivery.

“There is a massive shortage of people across data analytics, data science – people who can effectively engage with the opportunities presented by AI and automation,” Hylands told Which-50 between sessions at the Adobe Symposium this week.

“There is an increase in the number of people that are doing STEM-related courses at universities, which is positive to see, but we’re still not producing anything like the number of graduates required to fill the roles that are becoming available.”

Filling those vacancies requires a “proactive” approach to the future of work, according to Hylands, who says there is a danger that Australia may be “sleepwalking” into the future of automated work and digital technology.

“It’s absolutely critical that Australia engages effectively with up-skilling our workforce in the digital skills space if we want to stay a high income economy that is taking full advantage of its position on the edge of Asia,” Hylands said.

“As the central axis of the world moves further and further east we can be in position to take full advantage of that and be a very prosperous country into the years to come.”

The homegrown talent is already available, according to Hylands, but the support and guidance is not in some cases. One answer, Hylands says, is to involve industry – the technology makers and users – and to deliver learnings in a more rapid, iterative way. He argues this provides a better blend of “practical experience and more holistic learning”. 

Hylands argues combining the traditional higher education with a more “short, sharp, targeted” approach to up-skilling would better prepare Australia’s workforce to leverage digital technology, during a “time of exponential change”.

“If you’re after immediate engagement with a new technology that has just come to market, then engaging with that through an undergraduate or a masters qualification isn’t necessarily the most efficient way for you to get that learning just in time as you need it.”

“No matter what stage of your career you’re in, you’re having to continuously reengage with learning to make sure that you’ve got the most up to date skills to prosper in your current role,” Hylands said.

The pace of change

The requirement to up-skill will likely become more important as digital technology fundamentally changes the way we work. McKinsey research suggests automation and digital technology won’t necessarily reduce the number of jobs, but the transition “will be very challenging—matching or even exceeding the scale of shifts out of agriculture and manufacturing we have seen in the past”.

According to Hylands, this transition is occurring as the level of higher education surges.

“For 1990 there were 500,000 students globally engaging with higher education. Today there’s over 200 million. And in another 20 years there’s going to be 400 million,” he said.

The explosion of students and the pace of technological change means more approaches to learning are required, Hylands said. 

“No longer are people getting onto a single pathway on the corporate ladder where they have a job for life… Instead they’re needing to continuously re-skill and and up-skill.”

For professionals working in digital or technical areas, that pace of change is particularly fast, Hylands said.

“They need to develop core or soft transferable skills as well but engaging with new digital capabilities is absolutely critical.”

And while it’s challenging for individual to keep pace, businesses “lag even further behind” because of the difficulty of up-skilling an entire organisation, according to Hylands. “Governments and public policy lags even further behind that.”

Partner with Industry

The nature of traditional tertiary education, where multi-year courses are designed well before a student can undertake them makes it difficult to include the latest technology in practice, Hylands said.

One solution offered by Hylands and RMIT is a series of new short courses in digital marketing. The six to eight week courses, available from this month, are co-designed with Adobe and aim to equip students with digital best practices and a better understanding of the use of artificial intelligence.

According to Hylands, most of the students enrolled in the new courses already have bachelors degrees or masters qualifications, but the number of undergraduates undertaking these types of courses is increasing.

“It’s not that they’re coming for that necessarily foundational learning or higher educational learning that they’ve already engaged with a university for. But actually they’re seeing a need today in their field where they want to be up-skilled, to be more effective at work or to grasp a new opportunity.”

“And it’s the skills they’re after rather than the qualifications.”

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