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How to keep your skillset relevant  

The shelf-life of the average learned skill is just five years. So what does that mean for the future of work?

According to the recent Learn. Work. Repeat. The value of lifelong learning in professional industries report, more than 88 per cent of professional employers struggle to find employees with the skills they need.  

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it suggests there’s a disconnect between industry and traditional tertiary education, which seems to be pumping out graduates who don’t fit employer expectations. (That’s a problem RMIT Online is tackling head-on, first by working with industry experts to design relevant curriculums, but also by making lifelong learning cheaper, faster and more accessible.) 

But when you dig down into the data, you notice something else: the skills people are missing aren’t the ones you might think. RMIT Online surveyed more than 600 Australian businesses, and according to employers, it’s easier to find someone who can code that someone who can simply ‘solve problems’. Leadership, funnily enough, is the most elusive and highly prized skill of all.   

It raises the interesting existential question: are we becoming less skilled? 

The cost of the skills gap 

Skills gaps in the Australian employment market definitely exist. You find them in data scienceproduct management and even cybersecurity. And they’re quite expensive. Deloitte research from 2017 found that Australian business spend $7 billion every year on recruiting new workers with the right skills, and another $4 billion on training existing employees.  

In theory, these two figures should be reversed, especially since it’s been established that augmenting existing employee skills is way less risky, and the cost of replacing a bad hiring decision is roughly 2.5 times the worker’s annual salary. Nevertheless, businesses keep searching for the right skill mix, despite evidence suggesting that mix is becoming scarcer and scarcer.  


Out with the old  

But it isn’t simply the rarity of skilled employees that’s the issue. Human beings today aren’t inherently worse at problem solving than previous generations (IQs, for one thing, have been steadily rising since the 1930s). The problem is more that modern workplace skills decay at a much faster rate than they used to. Put simply: people’s skills are becoming less relevant over time. And the process is speeding up.  

Experts now think the half-life of a ‘learned skill’ is about five years, which is another way of saying everything you learn will be redundant in five years’ time. Nearly 60 per cent of current jobs are expected to become automated in some way over the next few decades. It’s another reason why traditional education models are becoming obsolete: why invest three years in an undergraduate degree, when the things you learn on day one will be outdated by the time you get your diploma?  


The rise of soft skills 

This is why so-called soft skills (creativity, leadership, problem solving, emotional intelligence) are so hyped right now – they have longevity. Creativity as a commodity will always have value. As tech reliance intensifies, collaboration becomes more important, not less. The worth of problem solving increases with the scale and complexity of the problems. 

“A big part of it is Silicon Valley,” says Carola Salvi, an Italian researcher at the Creative Brain Lab at Northwestern University. “Fifteen years ago, being creative was a synonym for being disorganised. Now we don’t want people to be rigid, we want people to be original, to think outside the box, to connect unexpected things.” 

This fits with the new RMIT Online data. Of all the skills employers were looking for, leadership, problem solving, creativity, verbal communication and collaboration were some of the hardest to find. And the reason these skills are rare is because we tend to think of them as somehow linked to our personality, hard-coded at birth. It seems easier to ‘learn’ Python than it does to ‘learn’ empathy.  


Upskilling for the future  

Humans aren’t necessarily becoming less skilled. But we do seem to lack more and more of the skills that employers are looking for. So what’s the answer? Well, looking at all the data, constant education and industry investment seem to be the best solution.  

Take the National Australia Bank (NAB) as an example. They employ 38,000 people all over Australia, and like many other large organisations, they rely on a broad range of skills to be successful. Employees at NAB are given opportunities for digital learning so that they can quickly upskill and add business value (this is done either through microlearning providers, like Coursera and EdX, or online university shortcourses). “The role of our business’s learning function is to enable learning that is flexible and enjoyable,” says Damien Woods, NAB’s GM of Learning. “Learning needs to be integrated across the business, thereby encouraging communities of practice.”  

This isn’t just good for employees looking to upskill. It’s good for business. Nearly 95 per cent of industry leaders surveyed by RMIT Online agreed that they received a direct benefit from workplace learning. Encouragingly, 84 per cent said they’d be willing to provide employees with some form of support, to make lifelong learning easier. 


If we’re going to fight the skills shortage, the first step is acknowledging the problem. We need to admit the things we don’t know.  


Want to find out more about the Learn. Work. Repeat. The value of lifelong learning in professional industries report? You can download it here.

This article was originally published on 11 September 2020