Digital skills are central to our future employability success
Digital skills have risen to become a foundational component of employability for both individuals and the entire workforce, writes Chris McMillan, General Manager of Work Pathways at ReadyTech.
(This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Institute of Employability Professionals Journal. The IEP is an international membership institute for the employability profession. The original article and the rest of the December issue can be accessed here.)
At ReadyTech, we live in a world of digital skills. As an ASX-listed tech company, we hire software developers, cyber security experts, IT project managers and quality assurance analysts. We’re part of an industry employing 861,000 people in Australia – a number Accenture and the Technology Council of Australia expects could soon top 1 million (Tech Council of Australia, October 2021). This makes us an eyewitness to one part of Australia’s digital skills gap. Right now, it’s difficult to source and hire skilled technology professionals from the local employment market. As well as driving up salary costs, the situation could hold our local technology ecosystem back from the innovation and growth required to make a predicted potential contribution of $250bn to our economy by 2030.
Australia’s digital skills deficit is wider than just the tech sector. Because technology has been eating its way into many industries at a fast rate (even those jobs traditionally considered manual or ‘blue-collar’) we are all being forced to confront the importance of digital skills for employability. Recent high-level analysis conducted by the Australian Industry Skills Committee of skills needs (as determined by its wide network of individual Industry Reference Committees) found ‘digital skills’ were the fourth highest priority generic skill requirement across all industries. Interestingly, the top three generic kills identified (adaptability, collaboration and analytical skills) are becoming prominent or are heavily influenced by the emergence of technologies in those industries (for example, adaptability becomes important when trends like automation or digital transformation change the way we work, while analytical skills become important in a world driven by complex information and ‘big data’). RMIT and Deloitte Access Economics’ recent survey, Ready, Set, Upskill – Effective Training for the Jobs of Tomorrow (which probably leaned towards survey respondents from the medium to large business world), made the claim that 87% of jobs now require some form of digital skill.
The AISC found the demand for digital skills fell into two buckets: digital skills relating to industry specific software or technology, and general digital skills and digital literacy. This is evidenced in job advertisements. For example, in jobs advertised for professional, clerical and administrative workers (which the AISC’s National Industry Insights Report found are the mostly likely to want digital skills), jobs ask for specific experience or skills in particular software systems or packages, like experience in Microsoft Office, as well as general computer literacy, software development or data entry experience. There are also two broad occupation types where digital skills are most requested; IT professions where high levels of specific digital skills are needed, and non-IT focused occupations where digital skills are often more basic or broad tasks. Out of all digital skills needs, it is basic digital skills (rather than advanced skills in areas like coding, blockchain, AI and data visualisation) that are demanded by the highest number of employers, according to research from Australian Industry Group.
We believe digital skills and digital literacy should now be at the forefront of any employability discussion. Like soft skills, digital skills have become one of those durable skills that have a critical influence on someone’s ability to win and sustain employment, whether we are talking about a jobseeker in employment services seeking an entry-level clerical role, or an employee in the gas supply industry, whose upskilling in ‘digital literacy, digital map reading, cybersecurity, data analytics and other data-related technologies’ has been deemed essential to future success (Gas IRC’s 2019 Industry Skills Forecast). Because the trend will not stop. Four in five business leaders surveyed by RMIT said new technologies will be important to their future goals. When exploring the trends driving the need for labour market skills, the AISC found technology-related factors like automation and robotics (including drones), digitisation and the Internet of Things and mobility and connectivity were raised more often than any other trends in skills forecasts, in industries as diverse as agriculture, community services, forestry and wood products, manufacturing and tourism. Because these trends have implications for the way people work in these industries, they impact the skills mix required.
How can our workforce go digital?
The digital skills challenge we face is complex. One of the reasons for this is the changing nature of work has come upon us faster than we’ve been ready for (despite many warnings, like one from the World Economic Forum in 2018 which predicted 42% of in-demand skills across all industries would change and 54% of all employees would require significant upskilling and reskilling between 2018 and 2022). COVID-19 only accelerated the change and digitalisation (although it also showed how adaptive we can be when we have to). ReadyTech saw this change in the education sector, where the higher, vocational and international education sectors were suddenly thrown into delivering learning online to local or international students, often without the requisite digital delivery capabilities required. Across the sector, this led to sub-par learning experiences and a decline in overall student satisfaction, largely due to under preparedness and under-utilisation of the capacities of digital technologies (only 43.2% of students were satisfied with learner engagement in 2020).
The bottom line is we don’t have enough digital skills and we’re not learning them fast enough to meet our future needs. This could make us incrementally less employable on an individual level and erodes our capacity as a workforce to meet the challenges of changing industries and roles. This has repercussions for participants right across the learning and work landscape. From individuals themselves, who are too often being thrown into the deep end of shapeshifting jobs with little to no support for upskilling and reskilling, to employers, education and training organisations and public sector policymakers, who are all having to do their best to adapt during difficult times, we need to work together to change the way we think about skilling and learning. We need to commit to following through on those understandings with the financial and practical commitments that will see us thrive as a skilled and digitally skilled workforce that’s ready for the rest of the 21st century.
How can different participants in our learning ecosystem evolve? Here’s just a few ideas to consider.
The biggest contribution individuals can make to their own employability through digital skills is to adopt and practice lifelong learning or continuous professional development. While not removing responsibility from other participants in the equation (see more on this below), there does need to be a realisation that to live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous working world being reshaped by technology will require the continual acquisition and updating of digital skills. This needs to be supported by enhanced education and guidance about the changing environment and opportunities. Individuals should be empowered in the knowledge they can access skills through various channels to mitigate and overcome any digital vocational barriers that they may encounter.
Employers and industry
Employers and industry will need to shoulder more of the digital skilling burden in future. By investing in upskilling and reskilling (including learning on the job and more formal training), employers and industry groups will be able to ensure their workforces are digitally capable. This includes making work flexible enough to integrate time for learning as well as making learning engaging. In just one example, carmaker Volkswagen (one of our clients) has a strategic Australia-wide training programme for its dealerships to ensure all sales staff and technicians are on clear learning pathways for progression that align with company needs and a changing industry. Through a learning culture, VW also ensures these staff maintain the currency of skills within existing roles on an ongoing basis.
Education and training
The education and training market will be a critical channel for delivering digital skills. With a growth in online and hybrid learning modes, movement in areas such as short courses, micro-credentials and the non-accredited learning space, as well as new challenger players (including large technology companies), the education market is in the process of reshaping itself in multiple ways to fit in with the need of individuals for ‘just-in-time’ digital skills delivered when they need them in ways they can consume amidst the flow of work and life. Education and learning providers have a strong opportunity to cater to this market for current digital skills, whether that is direct to learner or by partnering with employers and industries to support them in the delivery of digital skills to their workforces.
While opening Skills Week, Stuart Robert, the Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business asked challenging questions around digital skills, like why the vocational education and training sector is not developing more digital accredited courses to compete with moves from the tech giants. There is no doubt that Australian Federal and State governments and regulatory bodies are aware of the digital skills problem and the opportunities we face. They are making strong headway in evolving the learning environment to encourage things like more industry participation in skilling workforces and more streamlined creation of qualifications and the delivery of skills to meet the pace of change. The Digital Skills Organisation is a great example of that investment in the future.
Examples of digital skilling in action
There are many examples of educators, employers and individuals coming together in new ways to build digital skills capacity. One of these is a specialist project in the Melbourne suburb of Cremorne, where tech companies like Carsales.com.au, MYOB and Live Tiles have come together with Bendigo Kangan Institute TAFE through the Digital Skills Organisation to deliver tech skills to local learners, in areas such as programming, digital UX and UI design, quality assurance, project management and cyber security. Designed to deliver entry level talent through industry collaboration, it has the potential to be scaled nationwide to meet demand for 156,000 new technology workers.
The Digital Skills Organisation also undertook a Train 100 Data Analysts Trial to test innovative solutions for sourcing and training data security analysts into employment. With a focus on delivering training content specific to employer needs, the trial took in a diverse range of participants and collaborated with a range of different training providers (including both accredited and non-accredited providers) to deliver specific skills that employers needed. These included the insertion of specific soft skills requirements like the need for ‘hustle’ in a technology environment, as well as the technical capabilities that would see these data analysts succeed in future roles in industry.
Innovation extends to other industries and different employment candidates. The Mining Skills Organisation, for example, is undertaking an apprenticeships project drilling down into everything involved in a heavy diesel fitter role (including technology components) and are looking to accelerate training design and delivery. Training and employment firm WithYouWithMe is taking ex-veterans and assessing what jobs would suit them in the tech industry, including getting them job-ready for entry-level cyber defence roles in as little as 100 hours. It is also looking at the aptitudes that neurodiverse candidates can bring and matching candidates with suitable technology-related opportunities.
Mindset, the key to digital skills success
For employability professionals, there are a few insights to take away from this. Firstly, a lack of digital skills (like any other skills required by an employer) can and does act as a barrier to employment and can make workers less effective in their roles. This is not a static problem. As digital skills needs change, workers need to learn to remain employable. It brings more urgency to the phrase, ‘if you are standing still, you are falling behind’. The problem may become even more acute in the future. If we are concerned about enhancing employability in individuals or workforces, we need to be conscious of the growing importance of digital skills within this mix, and seek out ways to mitigate the problem, working with individuals, our education and training system, employers and policymakers.
But secondly (and perhaps more importantly), we need to know digital skills are inherently learnable. What we’ve seen in our business is there is nothing particularly special about a digital skill. While it can come with a higher education (that might nurture higher-level skills like problem solving and critical thinking or even creativity), the ability to adapt and thrive in an environment demanding digital skills is fundamentally about curiosity and learning how to learn continually with the right mindset. Employability professionals can play an important role in recognising that with a growth mindset - where workers believe they can learn new skills, that it is possible to teach an old dog (or young dog for that matter) new tricks – backed by broader changes in our learning culture and skills environment, there is no reason why individuals and workforces are not up to the challenge of a digital skills age.
Chris McMillan is the General Manager, Work Pathways at ReadyTech. To find out more about how ReadyTech supports employability through work pathways technology, read more here.