State of the (Digital) Nation: Why filling the skills gap is everyone’s business

 |   Microsoft NZ News Centre

Digital transformation and preparation for the future of work

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We’re already facing a digital skills shortage and this is set to worsen unless we act soon, writes Patrick Quesnel of Microsoft New Zealand.

Our expectations change as fast as our technology. We once waited minutes for a web page to load, and now, if our Netflix movie buffers for just a second, we’re huffing with impatience.

We’re increasingly asking our governments to be more like a business with greater transparency, responsiveness and easy (but secure) access to services on whichever device we choose.

Digital transformation and preparation for the future of work are a cornerstone of the New Zealand Government’s policy, as signalled in the Wellbeing Budget and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s recent State of the Nation speech.

But how can it meet these expectations when it doesn’t have enough workers with digital skills? And how can it protect everyone’s future wellbeing by helping us adapt to the changing job market?

There’s no single answer, but partnerships between public and private organisations to upskill workers are vital if we want New Zealand to remain an innovative, competitive player in a digital world.

Imagine a world where we can vote online, have our say on the issues important to us and know exactly where in the bureaucratic process our submissions have got to.

Where all Kiwis can access the same healthcare and social services, no matter which part of the country they live in.

Where all government agencies have an efficient system for sharing information that saves lives, protects the vulnerable, detects crimes or flags potential spending blowouts before they happen. A digital world needs a modern, tech-savvy government, but to get there, public sector workers need to become confident in new technologies.

The report further predicts that around 54 percent of employees will need to reskill in order to take advantage of these new opportunities. In New Zealand alone, more than 3,200 digital skilled roles are due to be created by 2021.

Microsoft’s own recent study, Future Ready Business: Assessing Asia Pacific’s Growth Potential Through AI, shows our rate of productivity, innovation and competitiveness are expected to double by 2021 once local organisations adopt AI. However, one of the main things holding us back is a lack of skilled people.

To stay competitive globally, we need to fill that skills gap. We can’t rely on finding enough trained workers – we need to grow them. But while education providers are certainly an important part of the puzzle, no one organisation has the capacity to train all these workers alone, and many workers can’t afford the expense.

That’s where more strategic action and partnerships are needed. In her State of the Nation speech in February, Jacinda Ardern said she hoped businesses would take the lead in reskilling our workforce, keeping the country moving forward. We have an obligation in the tech industry to help prepare as many as possible for the future of work.

We’re putting that into action this year, partnering with the Government to upskill employees at its departments and agencies.

Over the next six months, more than 500 public sector workers across New Zealand will receive more than 60 free workshops and courses on subjects such as data management, cloud and AI, giving them the confidence to use a range of digital technologies and platforms.

It’s just a small step in the right direction, but we’re providing these workers with better security against workplace disruption. That doesn’t just give us a more efficient – and effective – Government, but every initiative like this one has benefits for all of us.

It’s not just our Prime Minister talking about businesses taking the lead in meeting the skills shortage.

The World Economic Forum published a report on the “Retraining Revolution” in January, arguing that public-private partnerships to upskill employees were the best way to prepare the world’s workers for the future of work.

The US Government has partnered with research and education organisation SANS to retrain veterans and federal employees in cyber defence.

At telecommunications giant AT&T, more than 100,000 employees lacked up-to-date skills, with many in jobs involving hardware due to become obsolete within 10 years. AT&T has now embarked on a $1 billion training scheme to upskill its workers, collaborating with universities and online training providers to offer free courses. Looking even more broadly, consulting firm Cognizant has launched a massive fund to donate to organisations for retraining.

It was heartening that so many senior representatives from New Zealand’s public sector, businesses and NGOs came together at the AI event we hosted with the Trans Tasman Business Circle in March, to discuss the barriers and opportunities offered by AI.

This kind of collaboration on digital transformation needs to become the top priority for tech companies, major businesses and governments alike.

Having each take a role in upskilling and providing job security for our workers can only have benefits for all of us, helping us reach our goals faster, with flow-on effects for the economy.

If we prepare now, we won’t need to fear the next big tech disruption. We’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.

Patrick Quesnel is senior cloud and enterprise group lead for Microsoft New Zealand

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