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The new work order

If robots are going to be the accountants, what is the point of getting a degree? Rebecca Stevenson reports on the future of work, and finds old skills are getting a new relevance.

Late last month 100 New Zealand companies including Xero, Fonterra, The Warehouse, Spark and Fisher & Paykel signed an open letter that stated tertiary qualifications would not be needed for a number of skilled roles at these organisations.

They instead are going to look at skills, attitude and adaptability, rather than relying on a bachelors as a denoter of a quality employee. 

Education ‘futurist’, Mind Lab founder Frances Valentine says New Zealand businesses are struggling to find talented employees that can bring enthusiasm, natural talent, passion and potential to their companies and further, “qualifications do not always reflect the capability of the applicants”. 

The initiative, NZ Talent, is part of a push to double GDP growth, and raise productivity. It says we are faced with a historic high in unfilled job vacancies, and warns of a rapidly changing world of technology where skills are valued and “fixed knowledge” is not. “The pace of change is rapid,” reads a line from NZ Talent’s open letter, “as employment is increasingly redefined by technology and new skills, the job market needs to respond in new ways to find talent.”

As part of the initiative TradeMe has added a “no qualifications required” filter to its job search site, and at time of writing this piece there were 39 jobs up for grabs for non-qualified applicants, among them is Xero’s head of product design, TradeMe’s head of data and insights and national sales manager – agrifeeds – for Fonterra.

How could this letter change these businesses? That could be tricky to trace. Xero, for example, doesn’t actively track how many of its employees have tertiary qualifications. “Outside of our grad program, we’re mostly hiring on professional qualifications for specific roles that require it (CA, AWS etc.), previous experience and soft skills rather than tertiary qualifications,” Xero NZ country manager Craig Hudson says.

TALENT ONLY WANTED. PHOTO: SCREENSHOT

How many people might this change benefit? The 2013 Census shows about 22% of people aged 15 years and older have no formal qualifications, but the number of us getting them has been climbing; degree attainment has risen from about 15.8% in 2006 to about 20% in 2013.

The reasons to get a degree have been well publicised by the sector, with higher wages often highlighted and a current degree cheat sheet says graduates’ “median hourly earnings are 65% higher for New Zealanders with a degree or higher qualification”. The same page says 97% of those who hold a bachelor degree are employed, and you won’t be in debt for that long – seven years is the median time to pay off a student loan for one.

The companies aren’t walking away from education, just taking a wider look around for new blood. After all, “traditional tertiary education has its place”, but “it is one of many pathways to employment”, the open letter states. “Internships, apprenticeships, new micro-credentials, on the job training, online courses and badging are all effective ways to learn.” Apprenticeships? Now that is back to the future.

21C Skills Lab founder Faye Langdon hails the letter as a “seismic shift” – she says it “made explicit to young people and their parents that the New Work Order is well and truly here”. The highly accomplished Langdon says in the new world of work, many current tertiary qualifications are not seen by employers to prepare young people for real world roles.

We have to get away from thinking about jobs, Langdon says, and which degree you need to get to have that job. In the past kids would aspire to be doctors, lawyers, professional jobs that you could make a lifelong career from, and now it is all about skills, Langdon says. This undermines the traditional “deal” schools have had with students, and parents – work hard, get bursary and get to university; the new work order flips that deal on its head.

If the robots are going to be the accountants, or an algorithm inside software like Xero is, what’s the point of getting a degree?

It’s a relevant example to this teenager. Ria Sharma’s father is an accountant, and while the expected option might be to head to university, become an accountant and take over her dad’s existing business it’s not one the 15-year-old is considering. “We’re being told you can be an accountant, but when we get there these jobs could be gone,” she says.

SHARMA AT WORK. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Langdon says Sharma’s cohort are facing an entirely new landscape when they hit the workforce. She says a 15-year-old will likely change job 17 times across five careers, and that’s another reason we have to change what we are teaching. In our technology-obsessed world our kids need to be taught old school life skills like resilience, tenacity, adaptability and how to work in a team.

We need to take a step back too, Langdon says, and look at school. She says our teaching workforce is not well-equipped for this new work order – that we need to be less fixated on measuring meeting the curriculum and instead look at measuring the “non-cogs” – again that’s being curious, a good communicator, problem solver and those resilient personal skills.

“Education is definitely changing,” Sharma says.  She’s visiting The Spinoff office alongside entrepreneur James Hurman, part-way through an internship with the renowned brand strategist. It’s not her first dabble in the workforce, having completed her first internship at the age of 14.

This poised and articulate teenager is a student at Hobsonville Point Secondary School, New Zealand’s first public-private partnership secondary school. It’s a new model of how to run a school, with the school’s assets – the buildings – designed, built and maintained by private companies; and that’s not where the changes begin and end. Hobsonville Point also has ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ and ‘Flexible Learning Spaces’.

Gone are the rows of classrooms that can pen about 30 students, and the traditional setup of teacher at the front dictating lessons to seated pupils. At Hobsonville Point it’s all much more free flowing with larger areas (comfortable for up to 60 students) called ‘learning commons’ while smaller ‘breakout’ rooms can accommodate ones or twos. Kids might be working on the floor, or sitting in a bean bag.

The school teaches the curriculum, but single interest subjects are a thing of the past so where you maybe would have studied maths and physics individually, now students are learning information that might run across a few subjects – in this case it might be ‘movement’.  In another example, Sharma says she was learning about mathematics and food technology and out of this, the class explored product development and marketing. “I never would have thought there would be carry over, but it does,” Sharma says.

CLASS IS IN. PHOTO: SCREENSHOT HPSS

The secondary school is part of a wider movement to dismantle traditional education, and rebuild it with an eye to the future. The rise of automation and artificial intelligence is going to dramatically change the work available when Sharma is job hunting, so surely it’s logical that what we are teaching, and how we are teaching it, has to evolve too.

“We are going to get thrown out into this world, that you guys haven’t figured out yet… We have to make sure students are equipped with life skills. We need to be purposeful. We need to be self motivated. We need life skills rather than facts or tables,” Sharma says.

And if uni is no longer the end goal, what should young people be studying?

Langdon points to micro-credential learning badges like those offered by technology giant IBM, which are now even able to be used towards those dreaded degrees. They are, as IBM puts it, “a digital representation of an existing activity, like the completion of a class, an assessment or a demonstration of skills or abilities”.

So what does Sharma think waits for her once she’s finished her untraditional education at Hobsonville Point? She pauses. She might take a year off? Or will she get her nine-year-old self’s dream job, and a degree at Auckland University, in law? Who knows. The next internship could be a game changer.

rebecca@thespinoff.co.nz @bex_stevenson


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