Australians ‘complacent’ over need for retraining

Lifelong learning is not getting buy-in because workers at risk cannot see the need, study warns

November 13, 2019
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Australians are too complacent about the future of their occupations to safeguard their employability through continuous learning, a study suggests.

One-quarter of adults say their jobs will “definitely” exist in unchanged form half a century from now, while another 47 per cent believe that their jobs will “probably” persist in their current fashion. Just 12 per cent consider themselves at risk of losing their jobs within a year – even though 55 per cent concede that securing another position with equivalent pay and benefits would be “not easy at all”.

The findings, published by the McKell Institute thinktank, come from a survey of almost 2,300 Australian residents aged 18 or over. Their views fly in the face of predictions that technological change will erase somewhere between 9 and 46 per cent of jobs by 2030.

The report warns of “a degree of complacency” among people at risk of losing their livelihoods to automation. “Australians are not aware of, and not prepared for, the changes that are likely to come…in the labour market,” it suggests.

“If [people are] underprepared, then they may not be investing in the skills and other development that are required. They may not be prepared to take up new opportunities as they present in the future.”

Lead author Nicholas Biddle said there were scant data on public attitudes about labour market disruption, so he had begun the research with little idea about what it would reveal. He said some of the more alarming predictions of impending job losses were probably overestimates fostered by a “hype cycle” around the future of work.

“But there’s also an element of complacency,” said Dr Biddle, associate director of the Centre for Social Research and Methods at the Australian National University. “The potential risk of labour market change hasn’t filtered through to some workers.”

He blamed a sense of “heard it all before” among people whose jobs had proved immune to previous waves of disruption. The highly educated were among those most at risk, he added, citing lawyers, architects and practitioners of his own field of econometrics.

“It’s a niche industry, but there is potential for someone overseas or machine learning software to substitute for some of the tasks I do.”

The data, from the ANUPoll series of studies, were collected in late 2017 via online and telephone surveys of a longitudinal research cohort called the Life in Australia panel.

Asked about the potential threats to job security that worried them most, respondents were most likely to cite mismanagement of their companies or being supplanted by cheaper workers.

Of six potential sources of risk, replacement by robots or algorithms worried respondents the least, followed by an inability to keep abreast of technical skill requirements.

The report calls on the government to commission a White Paper on the future of work and develop a national lifelong learning strategy. It cites overseas efforts such as the Thailand 4.0 strategy, Germany’s Work 4.0 White Paper and New Zealand’s Future of Work Tripartite Forum, along with lifelong learning funding schemes such as Singapore’s SkillsFuture and France’s Personal Activity Account.

Dr Biddle said there had been reams of reports about labour market disruption by consultancies and public sector agencies, but little in the way of government-coordinated responses in Australia. “We’ve gone past the stage of identifying the problem,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I think the headline is a little misdirected - in the culture of continuous self-directed learning that many of us find ourselves there is often no need to embrace externally delivered retraining or re-education programs. Personally, my own working life has been varied and continues to change and adapt throughout each year - similarly with many of the people I work with. We embrace learning as part of our day-to-day work and are already experiencing the working requirements of constant shift. Our management is embracing new organisational structures that embrace the full scope of capabilities across our staff and draw together teams to suit the changing demands of new projects and initiatives - everyone experiences BAU through daily operational work but has the expectation of being called upon to step into strategic and developmental projects. The culture of continuous learning mitigates against the need for wholesale retraining.

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