Mercer recently asked two educators, a General Assembly Director and a People Experience Manager to share their insights on preparing students and workers on becoming the workforce of the future.
The following individuals formed the panel for a discussion at a recent Mercer HR Leaders Forum:
Leanne Guillon – Head of eLearning and Deputy Principal at Carey Baptist Grammar School
Adam Farrugia – People Experience Manager at Xero
Dr Natalia Nikolova – Senior Lecturer at UTS Business School
Elisia Retsas – Regional Director at General Assembly
Here are some highlights of their discussion. (Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: How do you define the future of work?
Leanne: We encourage students to see the future of work as an opportunity. Rather than worrying about the jobs machines are taking away, we encourage them to concentrate on the value they can add as humans. Their ability to connect with other humans, to communicate, collaborate and problem solve with them.
Natalia: Put simply, the future of work for humans is doing the work that is not going to be taken over by the robots. It’s part of the role of the education system to prepare students for this future.
Elisia: Things are changing so quickly; the skills we’re using in our jobs today may not be the ones we are using in five years. In the workforce of the future, people’s roles will change even more rapidly and they will really need to remain agile. Employers will need to empower their teams and encourage them to have a growth mindset and be adaptable.
Andrew: Xero has several core values, which are ingrained in everything we do. Those values relate to human capabilities. For example, ‘Challenge’ is one of the values. Staff are expected to challenge the status quo, the traditional processes and – in a respectful way – the ideas of their colleagues.
Q: What are your educational institutions doing to prepare students for a rapidly changing world, Leanne and Natalia?
Leanne: Historically, there has been a focus on metrics such as PISA rankings and ATAR scores. PISA used to only measure literacy and numeracy. It has now started testing collaborative problem solving and it will soon also be testing creative thinking. At our school, we encourage certain ‘Attributes’ [i.e. Inquires, Communicates, Connects, Seek Knowledge, Expresses Imagination]; these are the skills we believe will be important in the 21stcentury.
Educators are playing two games. Students and parents are very focused on ATARs scores and teachers certainly play the ATAR game. But teachers also aspire to develop the whole child and make them understand they are much more than just their ATAR score. It’s becoming easier to take that approach now prestigious employers are saying they are looking for more [than just impressive academic results] in potential employees.
Natalia: At UTS were also aiming to provide a more rounded education. One that involves cross-disciplinary programs. One that develops students’ critical thinking, leadership, problem-solving and teamwork skills. UTS also works closely with industry partners; these partners even co-design and co-deliver some of our programs. On Leanne’s point, universities are starting to move away from using ATARs as the sole metric admission decisions are made on. That’s great to see.
Q: What are the skills that are hot right now, Elisia?
Elisia: Things such as UX design and coding are in demand but the big growth area of recent years has been in data analytics and data science. It’s almost impossible to recruit people with those skills. That’s meant organisations are moving away from only allocating $500 a year per employee for learning and development then spending $30,000 attempting to recruit someone with digital skills. We’re having lots of conversations with employers about how they can use their learning and development function to address their talent acquisition problems and foster a workforce for the future.
For, example, General Assembly is currently working with a firm that is going to need 5000 staff with data analytics or data science skills. The firm has recognised it will be impossible to address that skills shortage through its recruitment efforts. It’s asked General Assembly to identify which members of its existing workforce are best suited to transition to the roles that need to be filled then to train them up.
Q: What does being a ‘People Experience’ Manager involve, Adam?
Adam: At Xero – as I’m sure is now the case in many companies – there’s been a move away from seeing HR as just the department that does the hiring and firing. Xero has always paid a lot of attention to creating excellent customer experiences. Three years ago, it decided to shift the HR department’s focus to providing awesome employee experiences. An awesome experience during the recruitment process, the onboarding process, the learning and development process. The goal was to enable people to do the best work of their lives at Xero. It seems to be working because Xero keeps winning awards for being the most innovative growth company in the world.
Q: Are we going to see more collaboration between educators and employers, companies working in different industries and even companies working in the same industry in the coming years?
Adam: Yes, if my experience is anything to go by. Xero is operating in an industry that has long confronted the kind of talent-shortage issues that lots of other industries appear to have on the horizon. To source talent, Xero partners with universities, as well as General Assembly, to put on ‘speed-dating’ events. If someone comes to an event and it turns out we’re interested in them and they are interested in us, we’ll get them enrolled in our vacation program and offer them part-time work during semester. We do that with a view to them entering our grad program once they’ve finished their degree.
What’s more, we’re happy for those prospective future employees to get experience at other tech companies. To take a real-world example, I interviewed a student in Canberra who was studying AI and recommended him for a spot in the vacation program. Long story short, he became part of the Xero team. He was impressive enough that after graduating Google offered him a contract position working on their driverless car project over in the US. He went and did that but Xero maintained a relationship with him. When he came back to Canberra, we got him back working at Xero on an important project that should result in the development of an innovative new product.
Leanne: Teachers are changing the way they educate in response to the changes in the wider world. The old approach was, for example, “I’m a maths teacher” where the new mindset is “I’m a teacher of the whole child”. In classrooms, while the integrity of core disciplines is maintained, there’s much more of an inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary approach.
Natalia: In academia there’s long been the ‘publish or perish’ performance benchmark. It still exists and it has the advantage of being easily quantifiable. In contrast, it’s much more difficult to measure how the relationships an academic has forged with employers helps their students find jobs after graduating. But universities and individual academics, confronted with developments such as Massive Open Online Courses, understand things need to change. Part of that change is deeper engagement with industry partners. Universities are now setting KPIs for academics such as ‘Service to the community’ or ‘Contribution to industry’.
Elissa: To go back to my earlier point, businesses that needed a skill set used to be able to just go and hire someone with that skill set. What is likely to happen more often in future is businesses will partner with organisations such as General Assembly. They will do that to ready their workforce for the future and solve talent-acquisition problems through the learning and development function.
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