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Why the future of work needs uni grads

Digital disruption has hit the workforce hard. Fears of job insecurity and uncertainty perforate every corner of the internet and subtly creep through workplace doors. The phrase ‘everybody is replaceable’ gets thrown around like a hot potato, but whether you believe that or not, current research estimates that up to 46% of workplace activities in Australia could be automated by 2030.

It’s terrifying to think you might be out of a job before your career has even started. But, with the right skills, future workplaces will actually need you.

This is because, as technology becomes more integrated in the workforce, there will be a clear point of difference between human and machine workers. That difference will be those inherent human abilities – to communicate, innovate and think critically – that AI can’t replicate.

Professor Liz Johnson, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education at Deakin University, is keen to express such a sentiment. She says that while discipline specific skills are important, in the future of work it’s the human skills that will take you from job to job, and that hold real value.

Prof. Johnson refers to these as enterprise, or transferable skills.

If you’re looking to give yourself a head-start, a university education plays a pivotal role in the development of these skills.

Transferable skills are intertwined with everything

If transferable skills are inherent human abilities, why do you need university to develop them?

‘It’s not obvious,’ Prof. Johnson acknowledges. ‘When you look at what university students submit for assessment, people often think of the content of what they’re doing – that they were talking about a particular topic, or creating a particular piece of work.

‘But, every time a student does that, they’re using a lot of other skills as well.’

Something as seemingly straightforward as a research assignment or a presentation is actually a task rich in transferable skill improvement and growth.

Despite being ‘human’ skills by nature, they can be developed and honed just as any other skill, and Prof. Johnson says it’s important that they are. ‘You reapply enterprise skills in different situations all the time, and they’re valued across fields,’ she explains. ‘If you talk to employers, industries and workforce planners about what they want for the future, they’ll tell you all those things that go in that enterprise skills box.

‘Things like: communication, self-management, problem solving, creativity, critical thinking, or more specific skills like digital literacy. They’re the skills that employers say they differentiate candidates on.’

However, honing these skills isn’t as simple as you might believe. ‘I don’t think enterprise skills are “soft” or easy,’ Prof. Johnson says. ‘They’re just as tricky and difficult as discipline-specific skills.’

Communication, for example, is a multifaceted skill, and it’s no longer enough to just be good at one or two aspects of it. Being adept in all kinds of communication is critical, no matter what job or industry you want to work in.

‘You’ve got to be flexible enough to think about communication in more than one way. It might be visual, a personal discussion, a written piece of communication, online, and so on. University will help you explore multiple different ways of communicating, and perhaps in multiple different languages for diverse audiences,’ Prof. Johnson says.

That’s not to say that discipline-specific skills aren’t important – they are and they form much of the content of a university degree. But, Prof. Johnson says, ‘it’s the transferable skills that will take you from job to job – that ability to think about applying things to a new environment is really valuable.’

'If you talk to employers, industries and workforce planners about what they want for the future, they’ll tell you all those things that go in that enterprise skills box.'

Professor Liz Johnson,
Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education, Deakin University

The future of work needs learners

There’s a famous quote by Alvin Toffler that states: ‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.’

A university degree develops your ability to learn in ways that are obvious, and in ways that might not become apparent until you enter the workforce, Prof. Johnson argues.

‘The first and most important thing about studying at university is that it gives you a learning mindset,’ Prof. Johnson says. ‘You’re looking for information and what you’re going to do with it. You’re analysing the situation you’re in, you’re learning about what you’re doing, and you seek to apply that in the future.

‘It’s really about being able to manage your own learning, learning about a specific area and then learning how to apply that in a new context. That is a very valuable set of skills indeed,’ she explains.

The other, and arguably more imperative thing you develop through a university degree is the appetite for lifelong learning.

‘Lifelong learning is the underpinning which helps people to be successful in their career. This is because, whatever you’re doing, you’re likely to be a learner,’ Prof. Johnson says. ‘Understanding how you learn and how you could change the way you learn is really useful because it makes you adaptable.’

Adaptability was one of the most in-demand enterprise skills of 2020 according to a LinkedIn analysis of skills listed by people who are getting hired at the fastest rates. Employers need people who can keep up with the rapid changes of the workforce, so your ability to learn is critical.

‘A lot of the time you’re learning informally,’ Prof. Johnson explains. ‘You might get a new task in your work and you learn what you need to help you complete that task. Or you might get a new job and they do things really differently to what you’re used to, and you have to figure out how everything works again.

‘The capacity to learn and change your skills over time makes you a much more flexible and employable person,’ she says.

University will teach you a lot about yourself

‘Studying at university is tough. It demands a lot from people, and when you’re studying, you learn a lot about yourself,’ Prof Johnson says. This could be anything from your ability to manage time, to your resilience in stressful situations.

‘Knowing yourself really helps you to develop for the future. Experiences like coping with the pressure of an assignment period coming up, or forming a group with people you’ve never met before to complete work with them and submit a group assignment – these are the kind of things that will happen in the workplace,’ Prof. Johnson says.

While being put in these scenarios at university can be really confronting, it’s one of the best ways to discover your talents, and strengthen your weaknesses. University provides you with a safe, encouraging environment to get to know yourself and work on becoming the best professional you can be.

‘The more we learn about how we do things, the better prepared we’ll be for the future,’ Prof. Johnson concludes.

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Professor Liz Johnson
Professor Liz Johnson

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Education, Deakin University

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