Boosting human skills in the age of robotics

| June 14, 2018

In 1970, the most common profession in the world was the typist. The advent of the desktop computer disrupted the typewriter and the typist was extinct by the late 1990s.  However, those who reskilled as computer literate secretaries continued to be employed.

In 2018, Arowana is working with RPA (robotic process automation) specialists to introduce robotic process automation software and tools into our companies. RPA will help them process menial, repetitive tasks faster, with zero errors and at much lower costs. In one case, an accounts payable robot can process in 1 hour what a human being can process in 1 week.

The cost of this robot (who can also automate tasks in accounts receivable, payroll, management and financial accounting) is less than US$15,000 per annum.  For an average small and medium sized enterprises (SME) in Australia, this potentially delivers savings of between US$250,000 to US$400,000 per annum.

Whereas it took 30 years for the typist to become completely redundant, Arowana’s view is that the robots and artificial intelligence tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will render a significant number of today’s occupations redundant within the next 10 years.

So why is this relevant to vocational and professional education and training (VPET)?

In March 2018, I attended a conference in Singapore, where the chairwoman of Bain & Co., Orit Gadiesh was a keynote speaker and was asked what was the single biggest problem facing businesses globally today.

She nominated vocational education, referencing the fact that many employers are already struggling with a “skills gap” issue, despite there being a record pool of tertiary educated graduates. As a result, youth unemployment and underemployment is a big issue in many OECD countries.

Gadiesh talked about how the robotics, automation and AI revolution combined with an aging population (where more skilled workers are retiring) will further compound the skills gap problem and pose a serious threat to a nation’s economic standing and prosperity. We concur with her that the solution to these issues is an effective, flexible and agile VPET system.

Furthermore, everyone will need to borrow a leaf from the world’s greatest learner, Tim Ferris and embrace lifelong learning to stay relevant. In a rapidly automating world, the rate of knowledge decay is going to escalate and everybody’s knowledge and skills “half-life” will become shorter and shorter.

Professor Boris Groysberg of Harvard Business School estimates this to be 6% per annum.  This means that everyone, whether they are blue collar, white collar, back office, middle office or front office will need to embrace a lifelong learning mantra.

For the sake of clarity, vocational education and training (VET) encompasses the cohort of students who do not pursue an academic tertiary education following completion of compulsory schooling but instead pursue trades and technical training.

On the other hand, professional education and training (PET) cover the cohort of students who are already workers but are seeking to reskill and/or upskill through continuing education, often on a part time basis.  We have combined these two and called it VPET as it deals with the same issue: the need to embrace lifelong learning to stay relevant.

Gadiesh also talked about how existing education models, as well as government and societal mindsets need to change – to be more agile, more flexible and more egalitarian with regards to non-tertiary education pathways.

We also agree with this given that a structural capability to rapidly reskill displaced employees so that they can be re-employed quickly is going to be vital for productivity, competitiveness and social cohesion.

Importantly, we believe that to solve the skills gap problem and future proof students and workers alike for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there must be a focus on equipping students and workers with relevant skills first and qualifications second.

Effective VET tends to result in a faster transition into the workplace and countries that have it at the core of the curriculum such as Switzerland, Germany and Denmark have been successful in maintaining low youth unemployment rates. Furthermore, augmenting an effective VET model with a practical PET model will provide a platform to close the skills gap and enable lifelong learning.

In this 3-part series on VPET, I will provide an overview of the key VET models practiced globally and share my perspectives on what is the “gold standard” model for delivering VET.  I will also reflect on our experience of successfully scaling up and exiting via IPO a US$200m vocational education business, Intueri Education Group (“Intueri”).

However, Intueri does not exist today because of abrupt changes to government regulation in Australia and New Zealand that triggered the breakup and sale of the group. I share the lessons we learned from this and how we are applying these lessons with regards to strategy and execution for EdventureCo, our new VPET platform.

This article was published by Arowana and forms part of a three part series.