Digital disruption is nothing new
There's been a significant increase in focus on digital disruption in recent times, particularly as it relates to jobs and skills. This is entirely justified. Everyone knows the pace of technological advancement is increasing. However, jobs being disrupted by technology is not a new thing. It’s been happening for as long as humans have been inventing. It’s something my family experienced firsthand.
I joined UNSW back in 2013. Like everything, it's had its ups and downs. But the one thing that has remained constant is I've always felt connected to the social mission. UNSW is literally shaping the future through its research and education. It truly is a special feeling to be a part of that.
The uni is a great place to work, but let's just say there are parts of the campus that could use some modernisation. I’ll never forget coming in for my first interview on level 14 of the library tower. It dead set felt like I'd walked into my dad's public service office in the 1980s - which is the backdrop to the story that follows.
From Hyderabad to Canberra
Education has been an important part of my family's life. My parents, both PhDs, emigrated to Australia in 1971. Their education (sprinkled with a healthy dose of courage and will) gave us and their grandchildren the lives we have today.
So how did my parents end up in Australia? Well, antipodean mining exploration was just taking off in the late 60s and there was a dearth of geo-scientists in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Mineral Resources was on a recruitment drive in India. Dad was advised to go and check it out. So, along he went and viola, he landed a job in Australia. Mum and dad packed their bags and with my six month old sister in tow, they left Hyderabad in southern India for the nation’s capital. They landed in Canberra in the spring of 1971. I doubt you could pick two more different places in the world than Hyderabad and Canberra. I can only imagine the culture shock they experienced.
Dad on survey whilst completing his Phd in India. Circa late 60s
As an organisation the BMR's mission was the geological and geophysical mapping of the continent as the basis for mineral exploration. Being an important cog in this mission, off dad ventured for three months every year to some far-flung part of the continent. His job was to create mining exploration maps of Australia. Parabadoo, Coober Pedy, Cobar, Ceduna, Kalgoorlie, Swan Hill, Mildura, Broken Hill, the Pilbara, Mount Isa, Tennant Creek, Katherine, the Nullabor, Captains Flat…my bedroom door was covered with stickers from each location as dad worked his way around the country. Up in a plane, survey the land, create the maps. Every day for three months of every year. Leaving me and my sister with mum, he did this for over 15 years.
Regardless of what you think of mining, it is has become one of Australia’s biggest industries and has made a significant contribution to the prosperity of Australia. It’s nice to reflect on the part my father played in the sector’s formative years.
Me and my sister visiting dad in Cobar on one of his yearly surveys. Circa late 70s.
The recession we had to have
My father had a PhD in geophysics, completed in 1969 at Osmania University in Hyderabad. Then, feeling like he needed a change he subsequently obtained a graduate diploma in public administration in the late 80s from the fledgling University of Canberra. Armed with an impeccable work ethic, an enviable education, a solid employment history and a newly minted qualification, dad felt like the world was his oyster. Then came the shock of the 90s. The recession we had to have. Nineteen percent interest rates. Australia good at rugby! Music was dominated by Seattle. The phrase 'long-term unemployed' entered common vernacular. Technology adoption started to boom, particularly in the workplace. In the geo-science space Geographic Information Systems and using computers to do work was becoming mainstream. These two technologies changed both my father's disciplines forever. Almost overnight his skills became redundant, and redundancy came soon after.
Being a teenager at the time, I was a bit oblivious to what was going on. Now being close to the age my father was when it happened, I realise how hard it must have been on both my parents.
I think it’s important to stress that his knowledge didn't become redundant, he just didn't have all the skills needed to apply it anymore. The application of knowledge is inexorably linked to skills. The core skill my dad needed was how to use a computer. A basic but critical skill which he never got the opportunity to acquire (sidenote, he’s a wiz with his iPhone these days, loves using an emoji).
So just learn to use a computer already
The disruption of jobs due to digital change began decades ago and has continued unabated, at an increasing pace, to the present. Digital skills are arguably the most fundamental for the application of knowledge in society today.
You may argue that there was nothing stopping dad from learning how to use a computer. I mean, we were generally a tech savvy family. My mother was a computer science lecturer. We always had a computer in the house and the fight between modem and landline was never ending.
But this point of view doesn’t acknowledge the realities of life. If you’ve never, and I mean never, used a computer, where do you start? At any rate, if you work in a certain industry with specific technologies, it’s not just about ‘learning to use a computer’. It’s about learning to transition your existing knowledge into skills that are relevant in the digital world. It’s about knowing what the right software and hardware is and understanding how these do in the digital sphere what you have been an expert at doing in the analogue world for years. How can your employer be confident that you’ve acquired these skills and that they shouldn’t replace you with a recent graduate for whom digital is just second nature? How can your employer be convinced that your extensive corporate memory is worth something and that augmenting it with the skills of today is a smart people strategy?
Better late than never
So, what’s the point of all this?
Fast forward 35 years and I find myself working in a business that is dedicated to supporting organisations investing in the upskilling and reskilling of their employees. Thankfully, there’s now widespread acknowledgement of the importance of skill building to keep pace with the constant and rapid changes we face. Mentem deploys UNSW's considerable education and academic expertise to the challenge of upskilling and reskilling at scale. Our programs deliver skill building in context through a combination of formal, social and on the job learning. The programs are academically rigorous, ensure that learners stay motivated through peer learning and have opportunities to apply their skills in a real life, organisational context.
And it works. I’ve witnessed first-hand the transformative impact of what we do. The fire that is lit in people for whom the digital fog is lifted and a whole new world is opened.
I write this as I sit in my parents’ living room at their flat in Chennai. After 50 years in Australia, they moved back to India in 2022. I’m visiting with my family. Dad looks up and asks me what I’m working on. I’m not quite sure how to answer. But a thought occurs to me. I wish someone was working on it when you needed it dad.