Staying competitive in the fourth industrial revolution

As the global march of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) powers on, blurring boundaries between the physical, digital and biological elements of our lives as it goes, how it can and will influence Australia’s future economy is of growing relevance. For a country in theory well placed to prosper, understanding its implications and opportunities offers the best chance of adopting the skills and measures which will see competitiveness retained in this age of change.

Two people using technical equipment

Head of Training Product Development Tim Rawlings at PwC’s Skills for Australia, a division of the global consultancy leader set up specifically to help build a future-fit workforce. In his opinion, although we shouldn’t expect some day of reckoning scenario, future-readiness when it comes to integrating technologies and workers should now be at the forefront of staying competitive for any type or size of business, as our digitised markets shed borders and barriers.

“Jobs have been lost and will continue to be lost as routine tasks are replaced with non-routine ones. Automating anything doesn’t happen overnight, but organisations do need to be more transparent about their needs and goals to encourage people to join them on that journey. Although technological advancement is fast-tracking it to some degree, it’s the slow-burn nature of automation where the risk of getting caught out really lies.”

He adds that whilst we know periods of recession, or immediately after, speed up the process of routine jobs permanently exiting the economy, it’s really an underlying willingness to innovate that drives such a shift.

“Generally, companies innovate either when they identify potential to further thrive, or in tough times to ensure they survive. This impacts the way businesses work and what they do. To use a timely example, although sectors suffering losses are proving patchier in our current COVID-19 climate, it makes sense for businesses broadly to review and automate routine tasks so they are competitive in a post-pandemic world.”

Skilling for non-routine tasks, then, is crucial to fostering a competitive career for the long-term, with work practices pivoting quicker than ever. But, as Rawlings notes, it pays to remember that corporate entities will remain focused on skilling people for tasks that they actually need fulfilled.

“Of course, there is a social and human benefit to upskilling, but its overwhelming objective is to get someone a job, or a better job. Effectively, the demand for new skills is defined by the state of the economy at any given time. This could mean more targeted, technical training, for example in cyber security or advanced analytics, or more transferable attributes and techniques like problem solving and creativity, are paramount in particular industries on different occasions. But, with convergence on the rise, it is beginning to mean both. Regardless of whether jobs are blue or white collar, in established industries or emerging, it is the nature of the tasks that make them up which will dictate the competencies workers need.”

That said, many employers are already struggling with a mismatch between their needs and the skills available, a situation which threatens to become more acute as business and job transformation moves faster than workers can adapt. So, despite it being tough to predict or pin-down every role which will define the economy in the coming years, we can identify some of the skill types and traits most likely to help professionals find their place within it.

A worker fixing some machinery

Harnessing the human

The more technology becomes part of business, the more humans need to be human, whether that’s via jobs that have a stronger humanistic slant, or tasks that are human centric. Skills such as effective collaboration, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, cultural awareness and moral judgement are all subject to growing demand as the digital-human divide lessens. Not only do they enable us to understand motivations, explore options and optimise outcomes, but they are difficult to replicate or automate.

New tricks for new (and old) problems

The realm of problem solving isn’t new, but in the 4IR there are certain inputs and techniques finding prominence. We have more data on more things available to us than we can comprehend, which has given us the ability, via skills in capture, analysis, communication and leadership, to generate better insights and deliver better decision making. At least some degree of data wrangling is now relevant to virtually all roles, and should be part of our ground zero skillsets.

We also have the connectivity, modelling power and manufacturing prowess to employ concepts such as design thinking in our search for solutions, reducing time to market and increasing efficiency through a rapid response model rather than a purely predictive one. A willingness to embrace and adjust to fresh approaches of all kinds is now crucial to how well we can do business as the creative and the commercial come together.

The art of scrambling

Knowing how to navigate situations and scenarios on the fly – ‘scrambling’ – is a skill muscle we will be required to flex more and more frequently in a whirlwind of change. Whether competing with tech-enabled advances as well as other employees in institutional employment, or promoting and offering expertise across multiple projects, clients and companies as freelancers or small business owners, resourcefulness is key.

Younger members of our workforce have been conditioned to embrace turbulence, which has meant their innate tech-savviness and tendency to join forces has been used to support digital ducking and weaving. More mature workers, on the other hand, possess experience in fostering relationships and conflict resolution, which millennials could benefit from, but need to take more active steps to increase their proficiency in IT plus new forms of collaboration and creativity. Building resilience to see them through the later stages of their working lives counts on it.

As Tim Rawlings sees it, our best bet for staying competitive in our work lives through to 2030 and beyond is to focus on infusing whatever we know now or learn later with an adaptability that welcomes different applications and integrations as they arise.

“4IR success will rely as much on how we can become experts at sourcing, interpreting and communicating knowledge as it will on the specific tasks we seek to skill ourselves with now. With some things in life, fitness for example, taking an approach where we chip away at achieving a goal is commonplace, but historically most people haven’t taken that approach to learning because of its frameworks and ‘jobs for life’ focus. However, what we are seeing now is an awakening to the personal and professional benefits of taking knowledge acquisition into our own hands. New skills mean new opportunities for learners to confidently span roles, companies and industries across a varied and extended career, and for business leaders to ensure their workforces stay motivated, productive and efficient amongst current competitive conditions, by guiding and supporting them through upskilling endeavours.”

Set yourself or your business up for success in our learning-fuelled workplaces of the future by upskilling with Melbourne MicroCerts, the University of Melbourne’s industry-aligned microcredentials. These affordable short courses span a range of subjects and combine leading insights with quality instruction in a package tailored for today’s professionals and tomorrow’s world.


With special thanks to:

  • Head of Training Product Development, Tim Rawlings at PwC’s Skills for Australia