The future of work is learning

Being ready for jobs of the future means continually learning new skills. Find out how we’re piloting an innovative approach to learning. It is based on career pathways, coaching and deliberate change.

5 people sitting and standing in front of a diagram.

The growing digital skills gap is well-articulated. It’s a whole-of-economy, international challenge. In Australia, the ACS and Deloitte estimate that we will need 100,000 additional technology workers between 2018 and 2024. Data61’s Artificial Intelligence Roadmap predicts we will need up to 161,000 extra AI specialist workers by 2030.

Oxford Economics and Cisco say 350,000 people in Australia will move into roles that need increases in 'human' skills. These include skills in active listening, speaking and critical thinking. This is consistent with the way the we interpret ‘digital capability’.

Digital capability covers skills that centre around people. We need to understand their needs, and design solutions to better meet those needs. Skills in technology are an important part, but they must be grounded in these human skills. This means having a sound understanding of people's needs, and an unwavering commitment to meeting those needs.

Mind the gap

These forecasts paint a large, mural-sized picture of the need to develop skills. The literature suggests ways to lift skills, such as better on-the-job learning and new digital options. However, each person is different, and each organisation is different. There is a gap between the learning strategies, and how people can apply them in their day-to-day lives. It is difficult to explain to someone — to you, to me, to your neighbour or your colleague — 'what specifically do I need to do to prepare for the jobs of the future?'

Added to this challenge is that we can’t say with certainty what skills will be needed in 10 years’ time. We can talk with reasonable confidence about the growing need for human skills. We can't say, for example, that an 'AI specialist' in 10 years will need 2 parts programming skills, 1 part critical thinking skills and 2 parts human interaction skills.

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact definition of a role 10 years from now. This makes it hard for people to take steps to transition into those roles. The only certainty is change, and the best way to prepare for change is to continually grow our capability. This is why the future of work is learning.

The recent APS Review announced we will deliver a digital profession in 2020. We are exploring how this profession can improve digital skills in government. It will be our key strategy to ensuring government has the right skills to deliver world-leading digital services. Its aim is to better attract, retain, develop and deploy skilled digital workers in government. We welcome input from anyone with an active interest from all sectors.

Career pathways

The Digital Profession will set the strategic direction and framework to improve skills. Tailored approaches will show how individuals can develop their capabilities. This is where our career pathways come in.

It’s hard to define jobs in a decade down to unique skills, but it is possible for current and emerging roles. The DTA and the Australian Public Service Commission are working together on solutions to this challenge. We have been developing a career pathways model that maps roles to specific skill needs. So far, 24 agencies and over 100 digital experts, have helped create skills data for 150 digital roles. These range from traditional roles, such as architects and developers, to newer roles such as service designers and user researchers. The approach is based primarily on the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

By comparing roles in the data set, the career pathways help organisations address strategic questions such as 'I need more cyber security experts…which other roles have a close skill alignment?' They allow individuals to answer questions like 'what skills do I need to develop to get a role I am interested in?'

We will keep growing this data set and hope it might be useful beyond the Australian Government. We have recently published the data set on We welcome your contributions.

A diagram showing the skills needed for a robotic process automation or RPA developer, with lines connecting to skills in boxes that depict related roles, such as a Senior RPA Developer or Solution Engineer. Many lines indicate that roles have many related skills. This helps people understand what skills they have or might need to develop to transition between roles. The diagram also indicates the level of specialisation they need in each skill, and whether someone should grow their specialisation in a skill to move between roles. On the diagram, the need to increase skills is shown by a red or orange coloured line. Skills that match at the same level are indicated by green lines. For a larger version, please download the PDF attached as a link.

Caption: The Career Pathway for a Robotic Process Automation Developer. Select the image to download a high-resolution PDF.

'Capability cubed' pilot

The career pathways identify the skills needed for a person to develop or move between roles. There is still a need to identify learning options. There is further work to sustain learning over time, to help people continually adapt. We needed to test how the career pathways would work in practice, in a sustainable and repeatable way.

Delivering the Building Digital Capability program taught us 3 key insights — among others! First, that career pathways have a lot of potential. Second, that coaching can be a very effective way to develop capability — as echoed by the literature. Finally, people learn better when they are guided to solve a problem. This guided our thinking for a 3-pronged approach to enhancing capability. The approach joins:

  1. Career pathways — starting with the career pathways, and a structured SFIA skills assessment. We provide participants with individualised career pathways that show their skills development needs. The pathways also show other roles that may suit people based on their skills.
  2. Coaching — evidence shows the benefits of coaching to develop capability. Applying coaching on-the-job and peer-to-peer can create more effective and sustainable learning.
  3. Change — this approach can be different to learning options people may be used to, such as off-site training courses. We wanted to create an ongoing cycle of learning, not just a one-off improvement. An explicitly designed process allows people involved to help frame the challenges and to co-design solutions.

Given the 3 components, we’re working with the name 'capability cubed'. Open to your ideas for names though?

A side note — the approach is not intended to replace the important role of formal training. However, under a 70-20-10 learning approach, formal training fulfills 10 per cent of learning needs. Our approach puts more structure around the 70 and 20 components — experience and working with others — to speed up learning.

We spoke to the Digital Solutions Division of the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business about their skills challenges. They explained that keeping up with changes to employment services needed more automation skills — specifically, automated testing. We discussed how our approach could work, creating space for staff to learn new skills in their daily work. In these discussions we found that:

  • previous approaches, such as group training, have not made sustained improvements in automated testing skills
  • finding budget to pay for training can be difficult
  • making time to develop capability is difficult, when there is a lot to deliver
  • people, once trained, can't apply the new skills and they are soon forgotten

The idea was born to pilot our approach as a way of building automated testing skills. We co-designed how the approach would work in practice for the Department, iterating each part to meet their needs.

For example, the DTA and Employment team found that more detailed measurement would give people specific goals. This helps make learning needs clearer and show progress more frequently. To do this, the team co-created an 11-point key performance indicator scale alongside the SFIA skills measurement. This scale informs weekly coaching plans and helps people quantify their progress.

Clear communication helps to create a culture that supports ongoing learning.

A cyclical diagram showing how a strategy connects to a strategic workforce plan to help you understand the skills and roles you have and what you need to deliver your strategy. This creates purpose for capability development, and the capability cubed model aims to create a cycle that allows people to continually learn. The diagram shows how learners might join the learning cycle, be assessed for their individual skills needs, and be connected with a subject matter expert. The subject matter expert is trained to coach, and then coaches their learner - or participant, as we call them - to address their individual skills needs through on-the-job coaching. After time, those learners have new and applied skills, and can start coaching others. This creates a cycle of continuous learning. On the right of the cyclical diagram is a statement of the capability objectives of this approach, including that it is more sustainable, more effective in helping people learn, and reduces loss of productivity because people are learning using real work examples.

Caption: the Capability Cubed model as a diagram, showing how strategy links to ongoing capability development

What next?

It has taken around 2 months to iterate the model to meet the Department’s needs. We are almost at the end of the first 6-week coaching period. It’s early days, and too early to claim success, but there are very positive signs. There is overwhelming support for the approach in the Department. There is interest in applying the model to other disciplines and policy areas. Participants have reported having greater confidence in their ability to learn new skills. They are happy with the support the Department provides to continue their development. One expert remarked their participant has learned in 3 weeks what took him 18 months.

We think there is great potential in the model. We are looking at how to apply across government, to support the Digital Profession.

To find out more about capability cubed, or to help design the Digital Profession, contact