Yes, we're all going to need to know how to work with AI

We know the future calls for new skills and knowledge. We know what’s in demand. But here we take a closer look at the details and how these areas intersect across sectors, garnering insights from experts in public policy, economics and the world of technology.

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Hype around the same group of in-demand skills and knowledge – leadership, sustainability, soft skills and technology – is becoming all too familiar. Despite initial focus on disruptive technology, we can agree now that skillsets in demand are diverse and transition to the new world will be human and tech-centric (WEF, 2020).

But do we still hold some assumptions about these high-demand areas, such as what they are exactly or who needs them? A closer look tells us they matter across industries, fall at both the high and low-end of employment, and it’s not always the expected practitioner needing upskilling.

Change impacts us all

The sheer amount of technological, demographic and socio-economic change taking place means most professional roles are witnessing some transformation in terms of knowledge and skills considered baseline. Roles that didn’t demand an understanding of AI now do. Positions that weren’t tasked with data analytics now are. Collaboration is expected of once-solo roles, and creative thinking of technical ones. We’re at a ‘tipping point’ in the momentum toward sustainability (Kerrigan and Kulasooriya, 2020), and this impacts even so-called ‘unrelated’ jobs.

And if the 2018 Future of Jobs report predicted 54 per cent of employees would require significant reskilling and upskilling by 2022 (WEF, 2018), COVID-19 has only compounded this as companies adapt to physical distancing, changed customer behaviours and reconfigured supply chains (Ellingrud, Gupta, and Salguero, 2020). The time is ripe for upskilling and it may not be in the area you think.

AI for all?

This sentiment is certainly true of technology.

Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne and Chief Risk and Security officer at Medikey, Dr Greg Adamson says that, “most skills in technology aren’t super high tech. There are some very advanced areas where you need expertise, but that's less and less the case.”

“If you're figuring out how to program transparency into AI, that's a very specialist area. But if you're the 90 per cent not working at the cutting edge, you'll be trying to apply it.”

So, while AI developers and programmers are needed, they don’t work alone and creating software is just one dimension of its impact on jobs.

Policymakers need to understand its impact on the workforce – what happens when AI disappears a job from the marketplace, or how future policies will account for women, since research shows gender bias in algorithm development and machine learning (Adams, 2019).

Organisational leaders and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers need to interrogate new technologies developed to support diversity, equity and inclusion – such as augmented writing interfaces addressing bias in job advertisements (WEF, 2020). For market researchers, preparing traditional surveys is being replaced by configuring conversational bots, which use a natural question style to gather people’s opinions (qualtrics, 2018). Farmers deploy smart harvesters and monitor sensors driven by AI that decide which crops to harvest, water or initiate pest control (Walch, 2019).

Big data is similarly widespread. As availability and access proliferates, ability to work with, understand and interpret data is increasingly essential for many roles, including educators, economic and financial advisers and consultants, "whose regular work involves understanding social phenomena, evaluating programs, studying human behaviour and developing policies,” says teaching specialist in the Department of Economics, Dr Wasana Karunarathne.

Professor of Public Policy and President of the International Research Society for Public Management, Jenny Lewis, agrees, pointing to its importance in open government. “Just sticking data sets on a website doesn’t equal open government. But if people designing the website understand how to make data accessible and usable by citizens, it becomes quite powerful.” Big data is not only the domain of data scientists but various professions – from conservationists using it to gain insights into animals in the face of habitat destruction, to hospitals embracing data to share information, provide better care for chronic emergency users, and cut down on costs (Deen, 2017).

Ethics is another factor complicating a basic understanding of technology roles and, on the flip side, demanding digital competence in jobs that increasingly use digital solutions. In tech, the emerging job title ‘product ethicist’ recognises there are ethical implications to product decisions, while roles like risk management need a basic understanding of any technology being implemented so they can think through the ethical dimension, says Professor Lewis.

“The great Robodebt scandal is a prime example. People were sent welfare debts they didn't have because nobody was correctly joining the dots between the data sets or considering the ethical issues of doing this without human oversight. Without understanding what technology can and can’t do, you won’t get such issues right.”

Engineering and construction is fast becoming high-tech too. Even before COVID-19, 77 per cent of E&C CEOs planned to adopt new technology to drive growth. From onsite workers using augmented reality to using robotics in prefabrication, digital literacy is key across the value chain (Caletka and Sobolewski, 2020).

Skills of the head and heart

Human Skills Matrix

Demand for soft skills matches – if not exceeds – technology skills. In fact, The path to prosperity Why the future of work is human, shows Australia’s most needed skill is customer service – which goes beyond retail and hospitality to interacting with and building relationships. Organisation and time management follow (Deloitte, 2019).

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The need – and shortage – of soft skills is an indirect effect of technology and change more broadly. Almost 89 per cent of executives struggle to find people possessing soft skills needed to enlarge application of new technologies (EY Sweeney, 2019), while technical degrees and jobs increasingly require them to work collaboratively in the face of competition, globalisation, and the need for innovation. It’s also because, contrary to popular belief, soft skills aren’t something people simply possess or learn once then have for life. As workplaces evolve, cultural norms shift, and job complexity and responsibilities change, they must be refined and nurtured.

These factors impact all sectors. Broader customer bases require understanding diverse needs (Deloitte, 2017); remote working necessitates self-management; the Victorian Public Service Capability Framework notes inclusion and diversity as key attitudes and mindsets; cybersecurity requires people-related skills because, as Dr Adamson points out, “85 to 95 per cent of all cyber-attacks are based on social engineering”; business analysts writing requirements for coders need excellent communication skills.

“Critical thinking is essential in current environments,” says Dr Karunarathne. “Asking what causes inflation, poverty? What the implications of COVID-19 on domestic violence are? And having strong analytical and problem-solving skills to identify issues, gather data, analyse phenomena, and develop policies.”

Leading through change

A world marked by complexity, uncertainty and increasing regulation, makes leaders crucial too, cited one of the top five fastest growing occupations (Deloitte, 2019).

As well as a shift from the ‘heroic leader’ to an inclusive, more distributed model, says Professor Lewis, they require a host of complex skills to move organisations in new directions and motivate workers – from entrepreneurial thinking to behavioural economics (EY Sweeney, 2019).

Construction needs people to implement strategies for new technologies; in public policy, an age of budget restraint demands creativity (Deloitte, 2019); people in all sectors have no choice but to innovate.

In development, “key skills undoubtedly relate to managing and navigating complexity, balancing a value-driven approach with the realities of ensuring program sustainability, building relationships, networking and leading virtually,” says Senior Lecturer in Development Studies Dr Violeta Schubert.

Leadership is also strengthened over time, with practice and reflection. And it’s not limited to those managing people. The qualities – influence, authenticity, integrity, self-awareness – serve professionals at every tier of the organisational structure.

Tackling sustainability: an imperative skill for all

Dr Karunarathne reminds us: “Climate change interests not only environmental scientists, but those in many fields – including economics, law, medicine and engineering. They just look at it from different angles.”

Due to increasing public and media pressure, shifting attitudes and recognition that it’s smart business, sustainable practices are now top of mind for consumers, shareholders, and organisations across sectors.

Recent polling from the Australian Institute shows four in five Australians agree climate change is occurring (Colvin, 2020); a BCG survey shows two-thirds of respondents think pandemic economic recovery plans should prioritise environmental issues; companies are seeking to increase environmental resilience of global supply chains (Unnikrishnan, 2020).

Naturally, demand grows for “knowledge, abilities, values and attitudes needed to live in, develop and support a sustainable and resource-efficient society” (Cedefop, 2012). But while science skills stemming from bodies of knowledge like physics and biology, and specialist skills in transport, agriculture, electricity, and industry to reduce emissions are important, the ‘greening’ of existing skills across industries is most required (Cedefop, 2018).

Construction workers need knowledge in renewable energy design; policymakers need knowledge to embed green policies; accountants and risk analysts need to understand compliance for climate-related risk disclosures.

Sector-specific skills

Skills in health and professional services are also in great demand. An ageing population and increase in chronic disease, compounded by a stretched system under COVID-19, is responsible for the former. Upskilling is required to both manage in the short term and rebuild for the long term (PWC, 2020).

From working within virtual care models to coping with infectious diseases, skill needs are vast. But most reflect a predicted hybrid workforce of humans and AI – skills in big data, cloud computing and nano-medical engineering – plus pathology and aged care (EY Sweeney, 2019).

A digital economy, increased demand for process improvement and cost reduction (EY Sweeney, 2019) and general business confidence has led to major growth of professional services and demand for specific skills.

In 2018-19, professional, scientific and technical services was one of the largest contributors to employment growth (56,000 people or 5.1 per cent) (ABS, 2020), and while COVID-19 has expanded some areas but decreased others, it is still projected to expand over the next five years (IBIS, 2020).

Most in-demand areas lie in consulting (particularly in leveraging organisational data, customer experience, digital product design and management and cybersecurity), computer system design and management and related services (EY Sweeney, 2020).

Regular upskilling for all

These skill areas are clearly widespread, vary across roles, and require continuous updating.

At the University of Melbourne, the Melbourne Model offers breadth, providing undergraduates opportunity to upskill outside their field, as well as skills that apply in any field.

MSPACE’s online degrees, short courses and Melbourne MicroCerts support people to upskill as they need it in high-demand areas. Effective Leadership Communication, Artificial Intelligence and Women, Assessment of Bushfire Exposure are some new courses that align with global skills shortages.

In a changing and challenging world and job market, gaining new skills or knowledge helps us not only survive, but ideally thrive. With granular insight into where opportunities are (WEF, 2020), let’s use it to ensure we have the capabilities to enjoy fulfilling employment.

Take a look at MSPACE’s current courses.