A week down under

7th October 2012

I’ve just returned from a fascinating week in Australia where I met lots of people, made a few speeches and took part in a major conference on the Future of Work. I was a guest of the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency (formally known as Skills Australia, which you have to think was a better name) which is similar in remit and position to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

My week started in Melbourne, where I arrived bleary-eyed on the Saturday morning of the Grand Final of the Australian Rules Football. This is a big day in the Australian sporting calendar, which left Melbourne a bit low for the weekend after losing to the Sydney Swans.

After catching up with a friend on Sunday, it was back to work for me on Monday with meetings with Sally Thompson from Adults Learning Australia (ALA), the sister organisation to NIACE, and senior staff at Box Hill TAFE. The day confirmed what I already suspected – that the policy debate and challenges in Australia are strikingly similar to the ones we face in the UK. The big concerns of workforce participation, productivity and skills utilisation are leading to pressures and policies which we are familiar with – more focus on employability and vocational qualifications, funding cuts which potentially will marginalise those with lower educational achievement, more employer-directed government funding and concerns about the so-called mismatch between what people choose to study and labour market needs.

An early flight to Sydney on Tuesday was followed by meetings with AWPA staff and a mini-seminar with the Community Colleges Australia. We discussed the wealth of research and data which NIACE can call on like our annual participation survey and the work we are doing on valuing adult education. We talked about whether such research was likely to be funded and how we can share intelligence. Our social return on investment work should easily be transferable and the participation survey would provide important understanding of how adults view learning.

The Future of Work conference was over two days at the Sydney Conference Centre in Darling Harbour. So whilst we were debating and thinking inside, thousands of people outside were basking in beautiful spring sunshine; I mention this mainly to ensure that people don’t think I was on a holiday! The conference was great, with some really stimulating speakers speculating about how work will be organised and what skills people will need over the next 10 to 20 years. Three issues will stay with me, as well as lots of new contacts and ideas.

The first issue is that predicting the future is not easy. There were lots of speakers willing to have a go and they provided very thought-provoking presentations, but the overriding impression I came away with is that there will be lots of changes, that some will be rapid and that there are lots of jobs which will be the norm in 10 years time, which we cannot even imagine now. Some of the presentations reminded me of a great quote, “Economists are pessimists, they’ve predicted 8 of the last 3 depressions”. The after dinner speech at the conference was on this theme, with a very entertaining run-through of previous predictions about the future, from Dan Dare to predictions that new technology would bring on a ‘golden age of leisure and pleasure’.

The second issue follows on from the first: if the future is so hard to predict then why are we trying to tie people down to learning which is narrowly-focussed around technical competencies that are right for today’s jobs? Surely people need a broader education to be able to adapt to changes in the labour market? As part of my presentation I suggested that we should be helping people to learn so that they can understand change, adapt to it, cope with it and ultimately manage and lead it. I am not sure that this resilience to change comes from some of the more narrow vocational qualifications which are often on offer.

The third issue is the one I was asked to present about: the role of informal learning in workforce development and skills. Very simply, I suggested that most successful people have learned more through informal learning than formal learning and that we need to recognise how to support good informal learning for all, both in the workplace and in the community. I went on to suggest that the prior negative experiences for many of school meant that the only way to encourage people into learning was through informal learning, which tapped into their motivation and which usually would not lead directly and immediately into a clear vocational pathway for everyone. I reinforced this with a description of the non-linear way in which many adults return to learning – because of its exploratory nature, it is often stop-start, upwards, downwards, sideways and it might take time for people to find what they want to learn and to translate that into skills for work.

The conference ended with some presentations about robotics, with speakers enthusiastically setting out a future in which robots take on many of the menial and mundane jobs (a good thing in my book), as well as taking on personal service roles for caring, particularly for older people. The latter made me worry and made me feel old, particularly when I was presented with a new robot which can read your emotions and which can be hugged. That, I don’t like the idea of.

My week ended with meetings on Friday morning followed by a small bit of R & R with a ferry out to Manly and a quick dip in the ocean just before the hot weather broke and the clouds rolled in. It was a good week overall, leaving me with lots to think about now that I’m back in the UK.