Demand for People Skills is Growing Faster Than Demand for STEM Skills
Claire Mason, Andrew Reeson, Todd Sanderson, 15 Nov 17

High level interpersonal and problem solving skills are what will make you employable in a digital world. Shutterstock

Advances in digital technology are changing the world of work. It has been estimated that more than 40% of human workers will be replaced by robots. This probably overstates the scale of displacement, but developments in the fields of artificial intelligence and machine learning will affect all sectors of the economy.

However, the impacts of digital disruption will not be evenly distributed. Previous waves of technology had the greatest impacts for workers in routine jobs, but now a growing number of roles may be at risk.

Even so, workers whose skills complement but are not substituted for by technology can use the new technology to be more productive and command higher wages.

What types of skills will ensure you are employable in the world of human and robot workers?

Two recent reports, “The VET Era” and “Growing Opportunities in the Fraser Coast” challenge the rhetoric around the importance of STEM skills in the digital economy, by revealing how demand for skills has changed over time.

1. Increasing demand for highly skilled workers

These analyses show a major shift in the skills profile of the Australian workforce. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) classifies occupations into skill levels based on the amount of training and experience required to perform the job.

In 1986, the largest group of workers was in occupations classified as skill level 4 (roughly equivalent to a certificate II or III). Since then, demand for highly skilled workers has grown rapidly. Nowadays, the largest group of workers is in the highest (skill level 1) category - occupations requiring a bachelor degree or higher qualification.

Essentially, increased reliance on technology in the work environment raises demand for more highly skilled workers, because the more routine work is automated. While it is good that more of us are working in more rewarding jobs, not everyone has benefited from this shift. Nor can the current winners in the digital economy afford to be complacent. As the capability of digital technology increases, a growing range of tasks (such as data analysis and diagnosis) can be automated.

So what types of skills should we be developing when we invest in the higher qualifications that are now required in most jobs?

To answer this question, we linked Australian employment data with United States data on the skills and abilities associated with different occupations.

By linking these datasets, we could estimate (based on the changing occupational composition of the Australian workforce) which skills and abilities were becoming more or less important. For simplicity, we have grouped these skills and abilities into four categories: traditional Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) skills, communications skills, technical skills and generic STEM skills.

2. Communication and people skills are increasingly important

The analyses reveal that, despite all the hype about STEM skills, occupations requiring communication skills are actually growing fastest.

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