Thursday, June 14, 2018

On the Future of Work and Workers

On 4 June I talked to an Australian Senate Committee on the Future of Work and Workers, at Parliament House in Canberra, alongside Rob Fitzpatrick, CEO of the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA). The committee had my short written submission, but here is the Question and Answer:
"Mr Worthington : I'm an honorary lecturer in computer science at the Australian National University where I teach computer professional skills, and I'm a member of the professional education governance committee of the Australian Computer Society, where I help set the education standards for computer professionals, but I'm making this submission in my own individual capacity as an educator.
 
You've heard from others about how technology is going to eliminate many jobs, and I would agree with the estimates of somewhere between 10 to 40 per cent of jobs. Some of my colleagues in the IT profession in Australia are effectively helping that happen. Workers will need better soft and technical skills. They will also need regular retraining because they will have multiple careers. I guess I'm an example of that. I started as a computer programmer with the government, working for the defence department. I've been retrained with a second skill as an educator, being trained in Australia and in North America.
 
Australia already has an education system which could provide work-ready learning across schools, vocational and higher education, and I suggest that we just need to tweak it a bit to make it more flexible. We need to strengthen the vocational education and training—VET—sector, so that it will blend between secondary education and universities. We need to fix up the conditional loans schemes so that they can be applied to the VET sector more freely.
 
We need to make university more flexible where the assumption isn't that someone does a three-year degree full-time and the exceptions are part-time people. The assumption should be that people will do smaller subdegree qualifications. The Vice-Chancellor of ANU mentioned microcredentials. They'll be doing those part-time and mostly online, not on campus, in response to the needs they have in the workplace. Actually most university courses are already blended. They're already mostly online and partly on campus as we speak, but that's not reflected in government policy or the rhetoric of universities mostly. 
 
We have a particular problem with international students. Regulations require them to be enrolled full-time all the time and that imposes a burden on people doing the education because, if a student fails or drops one subject, they have a problem. So I think we need to make that more flexible and allow them to do part of that online and allow them to do less than a full-time load.
 
We need to address soft skills more in our university system. I help do that at the ANU with the TechLauncher program where we have teams of students working on real problems for real clients in Canberra. These are skills that can be taught, but the problem is that the people teaching them—university academics—generally don't have the skills to do the teaching. We need to ask our university lecturers to be formally qualified in teaching I believe, which is a problem because university professors like to make other people do courses but they don't like to do them themselves. So I think that will need some encouragement via funding and perhaps some regulation in the system. That's about all I had to say. I welcome questions.
 
CHAIR: Thanks, Mr Worthington. At this point I might exit and hand over to Senator Patrick. I hope to be back before you finish up.
 
ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Patrick ): Thank you, Chair. Perhaps I'll start in reverse order. Mr Worthington, you describe your own situation as having changed throughout your career. I myself have managed a number of engineers over time. There is a progression we currently have in engineering where you might be a computer scientist then perhaps either go off in a different direction to management or broaden yourself from computer science to hardware to then algorithm development and some other disciplines, so you become multidisciplined. So is there really a change that is taking place or are you simply leveraging off your past knowledge and steering your career perhaps to a higher level?
 
Mr Worthington : I think there is a change. You need to learn new skills in a new area. The problem comes when you need to learn them relatively quickly. One of the examples given in the previous evidence was about cybersecurity. I help teach some people who are going to go into that area and that involves for technical people issues of human behaviour, international relations, the law and all sorts of things that they weren't previously familiar with. So I think this not just a matter of degree but a matter of learning new things. 
 
It can also be that they're not necessarily at a higher level of abstraction—for example, to teach in the Australian vocational education sector I had to go to TAFE and learn TAFE teaching, even though I was already giving lectures at universities. I had to learn a different way to approach it. I could've said: 'That's TAFE teaching. That's a low level. Why do I have to get that?' But I had to learn a different way of teaching, so I went to the appropriate place to learn those types of skills. I think we'll see people having a grab bag of little qualifications and different skills they get from different forms of institutions.
 
ACTING CHAIR: I guess I was suggesting that as you move along in your career and you do make changes there are, really, additional skills that you're learning which complement the next thing that you're doing. You don't end up giving away some of those past skills that you have learnt.
 
Mr Worthington : I wouldn't agree with that. For example, I tutor teams of students writing computer software and I have to say to them, 'The commuter programming languages I learnt stopped being used before you were born, so I can't help you with the technical aspects of your code. I can help you with how to talk to the client, how to manage the team, how to plan and strategise, but for the technical elements of this I am no longer confident in this area.' 
 
ACTING CHAIR: I think there is a place for people who can install a program in assembly language. It's still okay!
 
Mr Worthington : Yes, but they've stopped using some of the processes I used as well.
 
ACTING CHAIR: Sure.
 
Mr Worthington : I don't think it's just a matter of adding to your skills. There'll be many skills that are no longer relevant. AI was mentioned. There'll be things that used to be seen as a very important technical skill. Now the computer does it, and what was your main bread and butter nobody really wants. 
 
ACTING CHAIR: I noticed you were in my line of sight when I was asking about the 10 per cent versus 40 per cent. You seemed to be nodding on the 10 per cent.
Mr Worthington : It's somewhere in between 10 and 40 per cent for jobs disappearing. Nobody really knows. I think there's a view out there that all this technological development happens in a smooth, planned way. But, having seen it from the inside, we're making it up as we go along and we don't really know, when we produce some new technology, whether it's going to take off or not, whether people will really accept automated self-driving processes or not. So, to a large extent, we don't know. 
 
ACTING CHAIR: That's the cruise-control example I was using: a safe way to get, eventually, to automation but it may not happen quickly, or maybe there's some point where it suddenly takes off. I guess these things are hard to predict.
 
Mr Worthington : Yes. I have people come up to me every week and say, 'Hey, look, we've invented a new' something. And I go, 'Yes, and what can you use it for, and will anybody want it?' They're the really hard questions. 
 
ACTING CHAIR: Yes. I ran an R&D cell. I had 30 ideas pop before me per week and every once in a while one of them had a market, so I know where you're coming from. You talk about the development of new technology as being something that Australians want to have happen. Noting that, from my experience, you need to do the R&D stage, then you need to move to prototyping, then to manufacturing, and get the feedback loop into the development cycle, are we in some sense handicapped because of our shrinking manufacturing sector? ..."


From: Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers 04/06/2018, Senate Hansard, Australian Parliament 

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