Jobs of tomorrow

Preparing for the jobs of tomorrow

Apr 25, 2014 - LinkedIn article by James Arvanitakis
Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis· University of Western Sydney

It is obvious that the Australian economy is facing a number of adjustments. The closure of Ford and Holden, as well as the recent announcement of Qantas, highlights that the opportunities that once existed, no longer exist.

The slow and steady decline of the manufacturing sector that such job shedding highlights has prompted many to argue that new opportunities will emerge in the ‘service sector’. Such claims tend to be vague because it is very difficult to know where the jobs of the future will emerge.

Preparing university graduates for ‘jobs of the future’ is one of the challenges that remain top of mind for policy makers, educators and university administrators – and in the many conversations I have had, it is also a concern for parents all around the country.

One solution that has been proposed is ‘greater links with industry’.

This was the driving force behind the recent announcement by Universities Australia of a new agreement between the tertiary education sector and business groups to improve work-readiness of university graduates has been met with universally praise. Coming off the back of Ernst and Young’s 2012 Report into tertiary education that made such recommendations, the message is clear: the focus should be on ‘job ready’ graduates to fill the current and emerging gaps in the employment sector.

There is much to like about such initiatives, particularly its focus on ‘work integrated learning’. Work Integrated Learning includes activities such as work placements accredited for university course work, mentoring and internships.

But to identify the source of new employment requires imagination and creativity – two attributes that programs designed by industry rarely do.

And here is the risk if drawing closer links to industry: the economic imperative means that the private sector is often more focussed on their profits – both in the short and medium term –to consider the needs of our society. For example, what demands would Holden placed on graduates twelve months ago and how transferable would such skills be?

So where will jobs come from and how can we best prepare graduates?

At this stage, we can speculate that there will be at least four growth areas that may lead to a surge in employment that we can place under broad headings. The first is ‘health and medical care’ that reflects our aging population and the growing focus on preventative approaches to medicine.

Then there is ‘infrastructure’ – both in the physical and virtual world. Growing populations and changing lifestyle habits will alter the way cities are designed and our reliance on the IT world will only increase.

Thirdly there are ‘environmental services’ especially related to climate change and limited resources in a planet with never ending demands.

The fourth area is the tourism sector as the growing middle class from China and India continue to seek unique experiences.

But these are not straightforward opportunities and in a global market place characterised by increasing competition requires a workforce that is both innovative and aware of the resource constraints we are confronting.

As such, while it is important to make sure that graduates are skilled in their chosen discipline, educators must ensure that three additional skills are encouraged within graduating students – be they from tertiary or secondary institutions!

The first ‘skill’ to prioritise is creativity. The need for creativity in education has been well document by Sir Ken Robinson who argues ‘creativity is as important as literacy’.

But schools and universities tend to be bad at this and it is something that private industry rarely identifies as a necessary skill. If you look at the average engineering course, for example, there is little room for a focus on imagination or promoting the liberal arts. Likewise, very few arts graduates are encouraged to learn of the fascinating and creative world of scientific research such as brain plasticity.

This raises the second point – the need for an education focused that crosses disciplines. A consistent challenge for both the private and public sector is the ‘silo mentality’ that plagues management and leads to low productivity.

The problem is, however, that my ensuring students are ‘work ready’, the focus will be on their disciplinary skills with little room for other disciplines. There will be little time for arts and science students to understand economics, or economics students to undertake cross-cultural analysis.

Thirdly, we need to see a realignment of good social and scientific research with policy making to create an atmosphere for entrepreneurship in the search for solutions to some of our contemporary and future challenges. This gap has never been wider: repeated calls by the scientific community to take climate science are ignored; arts programs that are seen to have wider social and health benefits are the first to go when fiscal tightening is required; and, we have seen renewable energy entrepreneurs head to the United States and China as their innovations are undermined by special interests.

There are many opportunities that could exist. There is no reason Australia should not lead the way in advances in health and science, renewable energy and tourism, high tech and high value manufacturing.

Short-term focus on immediate problems will only get our economy so far – the challenge is for us to prepare for the challenges of tomorrow – and without such an approach, we are preparing graduates for jobs that may not exist in a few years time.

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