A study asks workers what skills will be most important. Naturally, most answered digital, but young people think differently

This May, Professor Dong Sun Park, lead shepherd of APEC’s human resource development group, asked a group of human resources development experts and officials from around the Asia-Pacific region, “How are we going to align training content to the needs of the present and future labor markets?”

They were holding an APEC-organized workshop held in the coastal town of Viña del Mar, Chile, ahead of a meeting of APEC ministers responsible for trade. They were gathered to discuss upskilling to bridge digital divides among workers, which is one of the challenges governments in the region will have to face in the coming decades.

An APEC report released last November investigated the effects of digital technology on labor productivity and stated that “people already in the workforce who risk losing their jobs to technology need to acquire new skills and upgrade themselves to be able to tackle the complexities of new technologies.”

A recent survey conducted in Australia found that most workers recognize digital skills as most essential. Dr Sean Gallagher of Swinburne University’s Centre for the New Workforce says they surveyed 1,000 workers from all walks of life—from CEOs to bus drivers, young and old.

One of the questions they asked was “what are the most important skills, from their perspective, for the future of work,” and 34 per cent answered in favor of digital and technology skills. Only 28 per cent considered functional skills, which are directly related to the job, as the most important skill set; 24 per cent favored emotional skills that boost collaboration and empathy; while 14 per cent went for entrepreneurial skills.

“There’s no greater challenge facing society today than workforce transformation arising from digital technologies,” Gallagher said, reporting the survey’s results during the workshop, which he attended with Dr Park and where he was the keynote speaker.

“Sophisticated automation and artificial intelligence technologies are going to change all jobs and transform all work,” he said. “Routine and predictable tasks are already being displaced by these technologies. We need to prepare our workers for the future of work now.”

A closer analysis of the data shows that how we think about the future might be different from how it will turn out, as can be seen through differences in the perspectives of older and younger workers.

According to Gallagher, digital skills are considered highly important by workers that hold senior positions in the workforce: Baby Boomers (or those born from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s) and to a lesser extent, Generation X (born in the 1960s to 1970s).

But in the case of Millennial workers—those born in the 1980s to 1990s—emotional skills and empathy are the most important skills moving forward.

“What I think this is portraying is that Baby Boomers and Gen X are making decisions for a future of work for a younger generation that doesn’t see the world as we see it,” said Gallagher. “Baby boomers have a very mechanistic view of the world. You have a skill, you can do a task, and produce a unit of output.

He describes this more traditional view of work as “predictable, linear and siloed,” where functional expertise is assisted by technology. New work, he says, is defined by continuous change. It is “interconnected, interdependent. It will require more of our uniquely human skills like emotional, social, collaborative and entrepreneurial skills, which are less vulnerable to being displaced by technology. But it’s also where technology will augment us as workers.”

“Millennials value social competencies relatively much higher than older generations. “They still value expertise, the functional skills related to our job, as fundamentally important, but not as highly as older workers,” said Gallagher.

“A challenge for companies as well as for educators is, when we think of diversity, ‘How can we empower our young people to be change agents in organizations?’” he continued. “Because Millennials have a more future-focused mindset that more accurately recognizes the work in the future requires a well-balanced skill set.”

Gallagher’s points complement and reflect the work that has been done by the APEC forum in the past decade. (Read this 2016 report by APEC on rethinking skills development in the digital age).

According to Professor Park, discussions among industry, government and academics—such as the ones facilitated by APEC and where experts like Gallagher are tapped for new ideas—are essential in facing the challenges of digital disruption in the workforce, many of which have cross-border implications.

“We often witness a digital divide along the age, gender and socio-economic lines. We still have low-quality precarious jobs often characterized by mundane and routine work,” Dr Park said. “How can we strengthen governments’ mechanisms to involve different actors in education and training programs?”

“New experiences and insights on digital competitiveness and skills development will contribute to not only facilitate skills and talents mobility and also create jobs and faster connectivity among people,” he said. “It is important to upskill our individuals with adequate education and training for the promotion of quality living in the Asia-Pacific region.”

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Dr Gallagher’s report, titled Peak Human Potential: Preparing Australia’s workforce for the digital future, on which the keynote presentation was based, will be published mid-June through the Centre for the New Workforce. It was presented at a workshop organized by the APEC Skills Development Capacity Building Alliance project, endorsed by the Capacity Building Network (CBN) and the Human Resources Development Working Group.