Information-Driven Business

The future of work beyond the headlines
by Robert Hillard

This month I had the privilege of being part of the team that launched Deloitte Australia’s major thought leadership piece, under the banner of “Building the Lucky Country”, investigating the future of work. Although thousands of words have been written on this topic, I think the vast majority have been based on opinion rather than hard evidence. That’s why, despite the crowded commentary space, we decided to take this topic on for one of our most comprehensive reports.

Australia’s “lucky country” nickname comes from Donald Horne’s 1964 book of the same name. Although Horne meant the term negatively, believing that Australians take our good fortune for granted, we believe that the country can continue to be “lucky” if we set ourselves up for success, starting with honest conversations about topics that matter for our future. Our Building the Lucky Country series is one vehicle for these conversations.

The result is The path to prosperity: Why the future of work is human. We are really proud of this report because it meets our objectives of challenging established assumptions, has relevance to policy decisions and is actionable by business. Some of our findings are uncomfortable and have left many of us, including me, reassessing some of our own assumptions about the future of work.

The report is unashamedly Australian, looking at local data. However, the outcomes can be equally extrapolated around the world.

Overall our report finds that the trend is toward creating more not less jobs. My colleague, John O’Mahony, says it best: “where there is a problem, there is a job” and, after all, we aren’t running out of problems!

When you have a problem trusting financial institutions, you create more regulations, regulators and compliance officers. When you have a problem with complex government services, you add people to the call centres and provide more hands-on support. When you have a problem with an aging population, you create more aged care workers. Not only will we need more care, we’ll also need more support as more of us seek to be active in society for longer.

There has long been a trend to reduce the floorspace needed per person for work. This has led some to think the idea of offices is coming to an end. In reality only 1 in 25 Australians works from home on any given day. Probably akin to many people working half a day a fortnight from home. In fact, collaboration in the office is becoming more important and floorspace is now increasing with growth in employment. People are working more flexibly, but still predominately from an office rather than home.

The idea that people aren’t loyal to an employer also isn’t backed-up by the numbers. There is a popular view that new entrants to the workforce need to assume they’ll have dozens of jobs in their lifetimes. In fact, the average worker has been with their current employer for about six years and nearly half (45%) have been with their employer for over five years.

Work is continuing to be through a traditional employer/employee relationship. We aren’t all going to be part of the gig economy. In fact, the number of people categorised as self-employed (including users of the gig economy platforms) has dropped over the last decade.

While our analysis shows that available employment is going to continue to grow, the shortage of skills to fill those jobs is growing even faster. We identify that Australia is going to have a gap of thousands of programmers, which is no surprise, but it is digital literacy that dwarfs programming being counted in the millions. But the largest gap of all is in customer service where Australia is projected to be short five million people. This finding alone warrants major attention as the assumption that the offshoring of customer service call centre jobs was cost-based alone may turn out to be incorrect.

Not only are employers looking for skills that their people lack, they are valuing those skills for only a relatively short period of time. Specifically, the data shows that the greatest gap between demand and supply is for people with three to five years of experience. Those who have obtained their skills over five years ago find that supply outstrips demand.

Clearly, we need to think differently about work if we’re to maximise our human talent. That means continual refreshing of our skills rather than trying to educate everyone for a lifelong career before they get their first job. For universities, it means thinking about continuous education and micro-credentials. For governments it means new training and industry policies.

Using the data to get a better insight into the future matters. When politicians are misdirected to believe all jobs are at risk, they assume that robots need to be taxed (as some have proposed) which would be a tax on productivity in a world where jobs are still being created. When they think that entire communities will be permanently underemployed, they look to solutions like a universal basic income (UBI). While a UBI might be appropriate for some societies, it should be based on the values and wealth of the country, not on a false assumption of permanent mass unemployment in the coming decades.

Navigating change isn’t easy for anyone and there will be disruption. The way to help people to adapt is to use the data we have to prepare rather than make uninformed assumptions. Let’s hope our report helps us all to move beyond the headlines and embrace the opportunity presented by the future of work.

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