Labour market roadmap needs greater skills accuracy

Oct 4, 2023
Steps of education and learning to success goal. Taking strategic steps towards success. Career path and first for business, learning achievement goals concept.

Any roadmap to Australia’s future labour market must be based on an accurate analysis of skills. Sadly, the employment white paper reflects the slant imposed by the ‘tech is tops’ narrative.

Now, let’s be clear here: I’m not disputing the impact of technology and automation on society and work, the need to be digitally literate and to develop technical expertise, nor the need for re or upskilling. What I’m raising are analytical flaws flowing from giving primacy to digital skills.

The ‘tech is tops’ narrative is cultivated in a steady stream of ‘latest’ reports announcing how technology drives and disrupts the economy, fixes most problems, and invites applying new models and tools that promise the agility needed to improve business, work, and labour.

Advice is dominated by economists, promulgated by big consultancies, think tanks, peak bodies, and major international organisations such as the World Economic Forum, who have a vested interest in positioning themselves as lead thinkers, policy influencers and service suppliers.

A huge flaw in this ‘tech is tops’ narrative is that it downplays and denigrates the very skills that will make a difference to our survival – humans using their social skills to work through problems like climate change, net zero transformation, and geopolitical tensions. These skills include collaboration, teamwork, influencing, negotiating and client service. Yet Deloitte is absurdly suggesting that we can use technologies to “help humans become better humans”. “More than just wearables”, says their website, you can use technology to “help workers become better versions of themselves”!

While the employment white paper recognises major forces reshaping Australia’s economy, building a skilled workforce, with inclusive employment and workplaces, is compromised by a failure to recognise the value and interrelatedness of diverse skills.

The boundaries between jobs and industries are blurring. Many work situations need the application of both STEM and social skills. Success in a STEM career often requires developing fruitful collaborations, cultivating friendships with colleagues, mentoring students, and effectively communicating accomplishments at conferences and seminars. And you’d find it difficult to locate a tech job that doesn’t require teamwork, communication and interpersonal skills to complement and augment technical skills.

Work that involves interprofessional collaboration, such as in the health and care sectors, involves high-level collaboration and teamwork, based on respect, trust, shared decision-making, partnerships, and the ability to resolve apparent conflicts. Solving complex problems that involve the application of new technology, the daily use of existing technology, and collaborating with diverse groups with varying degrees of technological ability and understanding, requires both high-level technical expertise as well as high-level communication, teamwork, negotiation, collaboration and change management. All these sophisticated skills are needed and are of equal value.

We hear about mental health impacts, burnout, and staff shortages of teachers, medical staff, care workers, police, emergency workers, and paramedics – the very people we’ll need to live peacefully, feel safe and access education, health and care services. All have technical skills, and use technology, but the core of their work relies significantly on social skills: being able to relate effectively to diverse people, explain complex topics, deal with trauma, crises, danger, stress, conflict, work in and across teams, coordinate, collaborate, persuade, influence, negotiate, educate, plus be creative, flexible, resilient, the list goes on. But you don’t see reports saying: “Social skills are critical to solving the world’s problems”. Instead, these skills are debased by inaccurately referring to them as ‘soft’ and non-technical.

What we see is yet another government white paper talking about growth in “soft-skill intensive occupations”, based on yet another consultancy report. The very skills that are needed to manage existential threats are denigrated with this term ‘soft’ skills, a term that is inaccurate, imprecise, and highly gendered.

Climate scientist, Joëlle Gergis, writing in the September edition of The Monthly, describes her anxiety when reading climate change reports and the impact on scientists of the abuse they cop when engaging in public conversations. But, as she points out, for some employers, this communicating work doesn’t count when applying for a promotion. Explaining life-threatening issues to general audiences is not considered ‘real work’.

It’s time governments, consultancies and organisations recognised that using social skills well is real work. They are essential to almost all jobs, and will certainly make the difference to our long-term survival.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!