Digital skills in Australia: Skill development for a digitally-focused future economy

This is part 3 of a 5-part series. Visit part 1: Digital skills In the Australian context and part 2: The digital divide and social inclusion.

The importance of digital skills to the Australian economy can not be understated. As discussed in previous posts the need for digital skills is expanding, however there is a persistent digital divide within Australia. While expanding the circle of digital inclusion has become a policy imperative, there is no simple fix to this pervasive social and technological issue.

Despite the significant challenges associated with closing the digital divide, there are opportunities to improve skills development to meet the demands of an ever-evolving digital economy.

Australia’s continual state of digital transformation

The age of digitally enabled work has arrived. As the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) suggests, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a great accelerator for digital transformation across industries and organisations.

The speedy transition to work from home, rise of digital learning, increased focus on locally produced goods, and emphasis on the importance of front-line workers can all be reasonably linked to the necessities that come from the outbreak. Similarly, a larger government focus on improvements to digital infrastructure and availability of digital skills can also be seen as a flow-on effect from the needs highlighted by the pandemic.

While the rise of digital work has been notable across many job markets, the CEDA report also points to areas where the need for further digital skills growth is still emerging. Namely, in fields such as manufacturing, human services and education.

Despite many of these occupations being associated with more ‘traditional’ skills, there is growing evidence to suggest that digital skills development will be required in occupations and industries not previously associated with these more technical skills. In response to this shift, there are a number of emerging occupations that will be defined by the meeting of existing jobs with emerging skills.

Digital skills and adaptability

The emergence of these new jobs and occupations has caused many to question how ‘soft’ and ‘technical’ skill training will work in tandem to meet the demands of a more digitally-focused marketplace. As the National Skills Commission (NSC) indicates, the emerging occupations on the rise post-COVID imply that true digital competency in the future will not strictly relate to the possession of good technical skills. Rather, it will require an ability to adapt to the needs of a job market that demands both technical prowess and more ‘non-technical’ soft skills, such as communication skills, teamwork and problem-solving.

This overwhelming need for adaptability highlights the growing need for a refocus on skills development across all forms of work, training and learning – from university through to VET pathways.

Employers’ expectations regarding the skills their employees should possess are growing to include flexibility, digital resilience and self-management. In response, the institutions and training providers Australia relies on to meet these training and employment requirements must also adopt a renewed ‘digital mindset’ to help foster a digitally competent workforce to meet the challenges of the global industrial revolution.

For many, achieving this important alignment comes down to how industry accredited training can be embedded with deeper and more targeted digital skill development.

Aligning digital skills with real careers

The numerous reports in the area of digital skills and the changing labour market points to one overwhelming finding: The importance of digital skills only looks to increase throughout all, if not most, industries and occupations.

At present, the VET sector faces a number of challenges to meet the growing industry need for apprentices and trainees that are qualified to respond adeptly to the realities of digital transformation. Some key challenges include:

  • The elective nature of much digital training content in VET
  • Broad nature of digital training content in training packages
  • Basic nature of the digital skill development that is provided (e.g. basic computer literacy skills)
  • The angling of much skilled training towards lower-skilled occupations, not managerial levels

In short, these challenges mean that there remains an ongoing misalignment between the pace industry is surging at in terms of digital capabilities and requirements, and the skilled labour market on-the-ground to meet it. While there is no easy solution to this mismatch, many are pointing to the need for a seismic ‘cultural shift’ in the education and training space to ensure a more responsive digital skilling system throughout the VET sector, industries and occupations as well.

On a positive note, a number of industry-led training programs have begun to emerge to help fill this digital skilling gap. These programs range from basic digital skills training for job seekers, through entry level on-the-job traineeships and other training programs, to upskilling and reskilling initiatives.

While these programs are industry led, many include support from education and training providers or organisations working in the employment sector. This connects skills training with the understanding of industry needs, and fills the gap for both the industry and job seeker or employee. Some examples of these programs include:

More needs to be done to make sure our future workforce is armed with the skills needed for Australia not only to survive, but to thrive in this next industrial era.

The fourth part of this series will consider government policy for digital skills, and initiatives across Australia that aim to improve digital skills and reduce the digital divide. A number of case studies will highlight the ways in which industry is responding to digital skills needs, including through Australian Apprenticeships.

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