The Future of Work

We can probably all remember being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” at each stage of our schooling. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also remember the various degrees of panic that question can trigger, depending on when your next exam might be.

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At the Hunter RDA STEM Workforce Conference in Honeysuckle this month, delegates were reminded that asking a child what they want to be when they grow up probably isn’t the best approach to get them thinking about their future. Instead, as suggested by Jan Owen AM, CEO of Foundation for Young Australians, perhaps we should ask, “What do you want the world to look like when you grow up?”.

Expecting a child to pinpoint a future career is perhaps a futile exercise, today more than ever: singular career pathways are a thing of the past. As put by Owen, no one can really expect to climb a career ladder anymore, so much as clamber all over a career jungle gym.

Contrary to what people might think about the increasing impact of automation on the workforce, this notion of ‘career jungle gyms’ is actually putting value back into human interaction. Mentorship is having an increasingly important role to play when it comes to career pathway finding - although it’s dubious as to what kind of work environments this might lead to in terms of increasing nepotism.

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The notion of career flexibility is extremely familiar to a lot of millennials who might have struggled for a long time to find full time work. Many of us have even given up on the idea - but it’s actually working out pretty well for some of us. We freelance, we teach, we run small businesses, we volunteer, we run community projects, and we’re plain old employees, too.

Of course, when we talk about flexibility in the workforce, we’re not just talking about how employees spend work-week, but how well they adapt to changes. There’s no point playing Russian roulette when it comes to predicting what kind of jobs will be around in ten years time.

An interesting example of mislaid predictions- one that’s probably only been made apparent in the past five or so years - is the pressure that has been put on students to learn a coding language. It was a sentiment echoed by many speakers that by the time these students actually enter the workforce, those languages will probably be obsolete. Instead of teaching kids how to do “a thing” - we should be teaching kids how to learn how to do “a thing”. This might not be as hard as it sounds - as Dave Bonzo of St Phillips Christian School sees it, “So many students are yet to realise they can fail.” There’s a lot of value in problem-based-learning - but of course, when it comes to using this approach in technological fields, it can quickly become an expensive endeavor. A potential way to ease this economic burden is to partner schools with industry groups. Although, this does come with substantial ethical concerns - none of which were addressed in this conference.

 Kids + expensive technological equipment = ....

Kids + expensive technological equipment = ....

The MC for this event, futurist Marc Pesce, had some insightful contributions to the discussion, too. He suspects the borders between professional practise and professional development will become increasingly blurred. Companies will have to invest back into their employees more than ever, as we’ll be spending as much of our time learning how to best do our jobs, as we will actually doing them. This isn’t surprising. Industries complain about universities failing to provide them with qualified employees, but that’s mostly because the world is shifting so rapidly - learning can’t afford to stop at graduation.