Time to Stop Talking About the Future of Work

20 Aug 2019

Admiring the problem

It’s time to replace talk about the future of work with action. While it is impossible to predict the timing, or full impact of technology on work, we have enough insight to act now to mitigate the fall out for people and organisations. On the up side there are significant potential productivity gains and the opportunity to provide more purposeful work, but these opportunities will only be realised if we act to mitigate the risk of displacement for workers with redundant skills and we proactively invest in creating adaptive workforces that can respond to changing ways of working and build the right capability for the future.

Recent research by EY teams highlights five inconvenient truths that pose a clear challenge to government, industry and employers.

1.     We are closer to the tipping point

Over the next three years employers forecast a doubling of AI and a further 55% growth in automation.

In the past technology simply augmented our human endeavours, often to workers benefit by reducing dangerous and onerous work. The momentum in Ai and Robotics is significant as it indicates that we are rapidly approaching the point where technology will increasingly have the potential to replace human capability.

That is the crux of the difference between the future and the past.

Commentators can point to the clear historic link between the evolution of technology and the emergence of new and more highly skilled work. They can also argue that this will continue to be the case, but those closest to the potential of technology are less optimistic about this trend continuing.

The question is, are we effectively preparing for the future?

And the stark answer is, no.

2.     The workforce outlook is heading for uncharted waters

Employers forecast that 11% of today’s jobs will be redundant over the next three years, 13% of jobs will be newly created and 31% will experience task redundancy.

Six out of 10 workers expect technology will have little or no impact on their job over the next three years.

The good news in this data is that it suggests job growth will continue, the bad news is for the 11% of workers will find themselves looking for a new job over the next three years, with little or no preparation. Additionally, the high level of task redundancy demonstrates the need for almost one third of jobs to be redesigned. If this is not attended to, the freed capacity that should be allocated to more productive tasks will go unmanaged. This will place the productivity gains promised by technology at risk.

There is no reason that redundancy at job or task level should go unmanaged, we have the tools to smooth the path for people facing displacement and to dynamically redesign roles as tasks become redundant.

The bigger challenge is to forecast the nature of emergent capability requirements of the new jobs that technology will drive.  We have shown little expertise in conquering this challenge in the past and this has resulted in serious, and often protracted skill shortages in new areas of demand.

To support effective action there is a clear need for all organisations to take stock of the impact of technology on the job outlook for their organisation. This requires technology plans to be integrated with workforce planning and people strategies.

3.     Inertia reigns

Three out of five employees report that they have not thought at all about the impact of technology on their job.

Forty three percent of employer’s report that they are planning for the future and are actively engaging people and supporting them to adapt.

However, 58% of employer’s report that these initiatives are at the basic stage.

Despite the almost daily media on the future of work and the impact of technology on jobs, the message is not getting through to Australian workers.

Leaders who were interviewed as part of the EY research discussed the challenge of understanding the nature and timing of impact of technology on jobs. There is a lack of good data from government forecasting Australia’s changing skill needs and an under prioritisation and investment amongst employers in effective workforce planning.

Without this foundation employers and workers will continue to struggle to make sense of how to adapt, or to fully grasp the imperative.

4.     Employers are optimistic about the market providing

Sixty-one percent of leaders across organisations believe that the market will provide the skills they need in the future.

This suggests that employers may not think first about reskilling their current workforce, but turn the market as their capability needs change or grow. Relying on the market to provide is a high-risk strategy that could result in unnecessary levels of displacement of workers, escalating skills shortages and increased competition for in demand skills.

While proactivity is more challenging, getting ahead of the curve by understanding what capability the organisation will require over a three-year outlook provides time to identify and institute opportunities for upskilling and reskilling. It also provides the clarity needed to effectively communicate how work will change and the nature of learning that will be central to people’s ongoing employability.

5.     Workers are not building skills for the future

Almost one third, or $4.6 billion of investment by employers in learning and development is wasted.

The Australian Bureau of statistics 2016/17 survey of work-related training and adult learning found that since 2005 Australia has experienced an 8% drop in workers participating in learning.

Training remains the province of the young, with participation in all forms of worker-related learning falling from 64% of people aged 20-24 years participating in some form of learning to 22% of those aged 55-64 years.[1]

While continuous learning across working life is accepted as essential, these facts highlight the size of the challenge we face as a nation to engage workers at all ages to take up learning opportunities that will ensure their continuing relevance.

The wasted investment in learning and development by Australian employers, highlighted by EY teams research clearly demonstrates that current approaches to learning and development are falling short. They are failing to achieve t he required level of participation, or to build an adaptive workforce that is engaged in developing the right skills for the future.

There is an urgent need for governments and industry to collectively redefine the approach to skilling Australian workers and to build awareness amongst the workforce of the criticality of learning to their future.

Government industry must act in concert

Leadership is required from government to frame the challenge and engage industry and workers in taking the right action.

A proactive approach to the changing landscape of work will position Australia to more fully capture the opportunities that the future presents. It will also allow time to mitigate the risk of displacement of more vulnerable segments of the workforce, and mounting pressure on the supply of skills the future will demand.

The role of government in responding to the challenge of the future of work is multi-faceted, it includes: leadership in managing their own workforce; building awareness amongst employers and the public of the changing employment landscape; and ensuring the policy settings and programs are in place to support employers to plan and workers to adapt.

The Victorian public sector employs more than 300,000 people[2], representing one of the most significant employing sectors in Victoria. The Government has historically led the way in implementing major workforce management initiatives, in areas such as diversity and inclusion, and flexible working.  The opportunity presents for the Victorian government to once again lead the way in demonstrating policy settings and interventions that drive a truly adaptive workforce.

Government also has an important role to play in building awareness for Victoria’s employers, who are seeking guidance on how the future is likely to evolve, including future skill requirements, and where they will find them.

Employers’ role in the development of lifelong learning for workers and their responsibility in the creation of time, reward and accountability for learning is in its infancy in Australia. Yet the need for retraining over the course of longer working lives is an urgent imperative. While life-long learning is the responsibility of all, joint venturing or collaboration between the public sector, business and the education and training sector is needed if we are to develop the necessary response to a ‘digital age of education and training’.

Clearly there is little time to waste, the future is happening now. Government needs to quickly address these issues through aligned policy, public messaging supported by data, and urgent attention to building an adaptive workforce, supported by access to skilling across working life.

Note: Unless otherwise referenced all data contained in this article is drawn from EY’s ‘Stop Talking About the Future of Work’ report. For a full copy follow the link below


[1] ABS, 2017. Catalogue 4234.0. ‘Work Related Training and adult Learning, Australia 2016/7’

[2] VPSC State of the Public Sector in Victoria, 2017-2018