Jobs of the Future Need a Training Strategy Now

What do you think would happen if 40 percent of Australians lost their jobs tomorrow? There would be chaos.  Chronic poverty.  Crime rates through the roof.  Governments would be thrown out on their ear.

Now what do you think would happen if 40 percent of the jobs we do disappeared, not overnight, but over the next 10 or 20 years.  We would do something about it, right?

Well we do know that.  This week the well credentialed Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) released a report that says exactly that – five million jobs that are currently being done in Australia are highly likely to be replaced by computers in the next decade or two.  That’s about 40 percent of the current Australian workforce.  Another two million jobs have a medium chance of being computerised.

Shocking? Yes. Surprising? No, not really. Think about it. Ever since the Industrial Revolution technology has been destroying old jobs and creating new ones. It’s just happening faster now.

More than half the companies on the US Fortune 500 list have disappeared in the past 15 years. Why? Digital disruption. Most of the jobs that will be created in Australia in the next 20 years will be in companies that don’t even exist today.

Here’s the real problem.  Most of these jobs will require skills we don’t have.  Or skills we don’t have enough of.  I am talking about STEM skills – science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills. 75 percent of the fastest growing jobs in Australia today require STEM skills – and supply isn’t keeping up with demand. 

I was at Google in Sydney the other day. They employ about 1,000 people in Australia. About half of them do jobs that require STEM skills – and about half of them are from overseas.

Google isn’t Robinson Crusoe. Another report came out this week.  This one is from Deloitte. It reveals that last financial year we imported 21,000 ICT workers.  Deloitte calls it Australia’s ‘brain gain’.  It’s happening because there aren’t enough people here with the skills to do these jobs.

In 2003 9,000 Australians a year graduated with an ICT degree.  In 2013 that number was about 3,500.  We are going backwards.  Over the same period the number of Chinese students graduating with STEM degrees has jumped from half a million to three and a half million.

According to Deloitte we will need another 100,000 ICT workers in Australia in the next six years. About a third of these jobs will be done by Australians.  The rest, about 70,000 jobs, will be done by people we bring in from all around the world. 

Can you see the problem now? Over the next two decades millions of jobs in Australia will disappear. Millions more will be created. But these new jobs won’t necessarily be done by Australians – or in Australia.

So what do we do?  Both reports recommend the same thing.  Both say education is the key. Both say that being able to use and instruct a computer will be just as important in the future as the ability to read and write and do maths is today.  Not everyone in 20 years will be a computer programmer or a software engineer.  Of course not.  But everyone will need to be computer literate. And that needs to start at primary school.

That’s exactly what Bill Shorten said in his Budget Reply speech.  When he talked about the need to teach coding to kids in primary school he was mocked by Tony Abbott. But guess what? That’s what they are doing in the UK. It’s what they are doing in Vietnam and in Singapore.  In Finland they start next year.  In the US they are trialling it in 30 school districts, including in Chicago and New York.  And in 20 years’ time a lot of the kids that are in kindergarten today will be doing it at work.

This is just the start.  We need a national STEM strategy – from the classroom to the board room.  Believe it or not we are the only country in the OECD that doesn’t have one.

If the reports released this week are even half right we have got a massive challenge on our hands.  Millions of jobs are going to disappear.  Millions more will be created – but they won’t necessarily be done by Australians or even in Australia.  We need to get cracking now to make sure they are.  Bill Shorten has announced the first part of Labor’s plan for the jobs of the future. Stay tuned.  There’s more to come.

This piece originally appeared in The Australian on Friday, 19 June 2015.

FRIDAY, 19 JUNE 2015