Skilling for the revolution: How to build employment, talent and networks for a strong digital future

 |   Russell Craig, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft New Zealand

Microsoft Skilling

Every business leader on the planet knows about the coming “fourth industrial revolution”, bringing huge opportunities for growth and innovation – but also demanding swift preparation. A 2019 study by Microsoft, “Future Ready Business: Assessing Asia Pacific’s Growth Potential Through AI”, forecasted New Zealand’s rate of productivity, innovation and competitiveness would double by 2021, once local organisations adopted artificial intelligence (AI). At the same time, the World Economic Forum predicted that about 75 million jobs would be phased out due to AI by 2025—and about 133 million new jobs would be created. More than half of employees would need to reskill to take advantage of these new opportunities.

COVID-19 has only added rocket fuel to the fire. While the pandemic has brought employment into even sharper focus, it’s been clear for some time that we don’t have enough skilled workers to enable New Zealand to remain competitive in a rapidly digitising world. With the dramatic shift to remote working and online business models, we have more need for digitally skilled workers than ever but most of those displaced from their jobs by COVID-19 don’t have the skills to match the demand.

Since the beginning of July 2020, Microsoft has provided 33,000 New Zealanders with training via its global skills initiative aimed at helping 25 million people worldwide develop in-demand skills. But given the scale of change and disruption, it’s going to take many organisations working together to fill the skills gap. To create meaningful – and swift – change, support displaced workers and truly realise New Zealand’s economic potential requires a sustainable programme that readies New Zealanders for the future of work over the long term.

This is why The Collaborative, Massey University and Microsoft launched the Industry 4.0 Accelerator (i4) in early 2020 as an open collaboration for the good of New Zealand. It brings employers together with academic course providers and the technology industry to ensure New Zealanders get the skills they need to take our economy into the future.

The academic sector faces the continual challenge of preparing graduates for tomorrow’s jobs as industries evolve ever faster. Meanwhile, new graduates face the common Catch 22 challenge of requiring industry experience to get a job. Reflecting Massey University’s commitment to applied learning, i4 helps overcome these issues by bringing industry together with students and faculty in clearly defined projects that deliver value back to businesses, while ensuring graduates get the skills and experience employers need.

During the April lockdown, the i4 partners worked alongside businesses across New Zealand to understand their needs, refine the strategy and build a solid ecosystem comprising employers, innovation partners and regional business support networks. Since then, the University of Otago and employers such as Kordia have joined, and there are plans to make the programme available to almost 50,000 students across New Zealand by the end of the year.

The first initiative was launched at Massey University in July, with the Digital Reskill Initiative being developed especially to provide students with industry-relevant skills and on-the-job training via a cooperative learning model that aligned with employer needs and expectations. Early feedback was that employers particularly valued Microsoft certifications, so these were integrated into both undergraduate and postgraduate learning pathways.

Known as micro-credentials, students take shorter Microsoft certifications in technologies such as AI as part of their overall qualification and are also involved with industry-based projects where they can gain work-integrated learning opportunities.

As Massey Business School Pro-Vice Chancellor Stephen Kelly explains, “For Massey University these types of blended academic and industry cooperative learning models are the way of the future, where we can accelerate a student’s learning pathways with these kinds of short courses and projects to demonstrate to employers that our students have exactly the practical skills they’re looking for at a glance”.

However, graduates are just one piece of the puzzle. Another focus of i4 is to help educate business leaders to understand what more technology can do and create new “joined-up” opportunities. While many are already embracing some digital tools such as cloud for remote working, new technologies could benefit not only their own business but the whole ecosystem in which they operate. For example, while the use of robots might help sow crops or harvest logs faster, many more innovation opportunities and efficiencies could be realised through better data sharing and the use of AI across entire value chains, saving transport costs, charting energy use, speeding up supply and using data insights to design unique value-added products.

Transforming our economy means transforming our culture into a digital one, not just filling roles for existing opportunities but creating new ones. Through the AI Business School, Microsoft has been engaging with employers to help them see what the future might look like and understand the value of data, AI, augmented reality and other tools to break down siloes. However, no one organisation can break down siloes on its own.

That’s where i4 has called on its networks, fostering collaborative innovation and data sharing across regional economies to accelerate digital adoption. It is also working alongside major employers, local councils and the government to identify opportunities to create regional projects that facilitate training and employment. Already plans are underway in areas such as Napier and Dunedin to create work for local talent that will make the regions more attractive places to live for young people and strengthen regional economies.

Similarly, i4 and its partners are working with industry bodies to identify key projects their workers will need skilling for and provide relevant training. The Electrical Training Company (ETCO), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Master Electricians, has joined with i4 and Rockwell Automation to help unemployed New Zealanders retrain or transition from other trades into the electrical and automation industries. The need will be great for electricians to have different skills in future – not just wiring but programming smart buildings and supporting industrial automation. The partners are working to educate the electrical industry on the need for upskilling while creating apprenticeships to train workers in new digital technologies such as IoT and AI.

i4 is also working with Otago University to explore opportunities to bring these types of blended programmes and projects to the advanced manufacturing sector in New Zealand and identify opportunities for Industry 4.0 skills acceleration and supply logistics innovation in an artificial intelligence-governed world.

In the words of Sergio Biggemann, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Otago University: “The potential contribution of Industry 4.0 goes beyond the very important increase in productivity; it reaches an even more fundamental need worldwide, which is the creation of collaboration networks to foster sustainable practices to preserve the environment.

“The integration of intelligent technologies in business processes will also allow more transparent dissemination of information between firms and their stakeholders.”

Through collaborations like these, it’s possible to change a whole industry in time.

As i4 director Malcolm Fraser explains: “The people we train will take these new digital skills into the enterprises that employ them, which in turn helps accelerate the adoption of new technologies across the business and gradually, the wider industry. This is a long game, but each graduate we train adds to the knowledge filtering through the industry.”

The more we can foster these types of digital skills initiatives and data collaborations, the faster New Zealand will be able to realise the promised gains in innovation and competitiveness in the global market.

Initiatives such as i4 show what’s possible – but to create a lasting pipeline of talent and new jobs across our regions, organisations of all kinds must actively seek opportunities to partner on collective goals. Only together will we be in a position to fully realise the benefits of the digital age.

For more information on the Industry 4.0 Accelerator, visit


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