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First 'Future of Work' forum touches on education, productivity

Thursday 2nd August 2018

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The government's first tripartite 'Future of Work' forum, bringing together policymakers, business leaders and unionists, discussed upcoming education needs and ways to overcome the country's lacklustre productivity. 

The initiative seeks to find areas of common ground between the three groups where they can pool resources and ideas to adapt to an uncertain employment environment as technology allows more existing jobs to be automated and responses to climate change and changing consumer tastes create sunset industries.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson, flanked by Council of Trade Unions president Richard Wagstaff and Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope, told reporters in Wellington the forum's four key areas are ensuring "just transitions" in industries undergoing structural shifts, introducing a lifelong learning approach to allow for swift training, understanding what new technology will do to work practices, and lifting labour productivity. 

"This is about areas where we have a shared and common interest and view that we need to be focusing on these to ensure New Zealand transitions through these changes in the future of work in a way that's sustainable and ensures that we do have those good jobs," Robertson said. "It's very important from a government perspective that this is not about the forum doing the work, it's about making sure the perspectives of workers and businesses are in on that work and that we can jointly share what's being done in workplaces around the country and what's being done by the government."

Robertson has been intimately involved in these theoretical issues for several years, undertaking a Future of Work forum while in opposition and travelling to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris ahead of last year's general election to pursue new economic policies to freshen up his platform. 

The OECD has its own Future of Work initiative, including a specific platform for G7 nations. A March 2018 policy brief on automation noted that OECD research suggested 14 percent of jobs across OECD member nations will be replaced by automation and a further 32 percent will face significant changes in how they're carried out, with low-skilled and young people most at risk. It said adaptable education systems are a key priority to address that risk. 

New Zealand's plans to prepare education for future working styles include reviewing vocational learning in the short-term to improve regional training and getting better career pathways. Short to medium-term initiatives include reviewing and advising on the careers action plan and endorsing a Manufacturers' Network pilot programme to partner with training providers and unions to help workers gain skills to fit in a changing environment. Another medium-to-long-term goal is to develop a career system strategy to determine where the government fits. 

The forum's proposed workplace productivity stream seeks to create workplaces that are more adaptable and resilient to change, ensure education and migration systems respond to the labour market, and introduce new avenues for firms, unions and policymakers to support workers gaining new skills. The short-term agenda includes using the 'High Performance, High Engagement' approach that's been successful for Air New Zealand and KiwiRail. In the short-to-medium term the forum will review and advise on Productivity Commission work, and in the medium-to-long term it will have input on how research, science and innovation will support the Crown's goal of lifting research and development to 2 percent of GDP over the next decade. 

Robertson didn't have a timeframe for the next meeting, but said he wanted to touch on the other two strands of the work programme.

The 'just transitions' work seeks to understand the pathways to transforming New Zealand's economy and how that ripples through the nation, with a short-term goal for the forum aiming to help the government prioritise its framework for that work. In the short-to-medium term, the forum will provide feedback on the climate change adaptation work group report and help determine what policy levers are available to the government. The forum will also advise on engaging with Taranaki on how best to cope with a transition to a low-carbon economy. 

On the technology front, the forum's proposed work programme will seek to boost digital inclusion and get the most out of the tech sector, while building digital capabilities for small businesses and helping people and firms adapt to disruption. In the short term, it will advise on how to respond to a 'Digital Skills for a Digital Nation' report, and help the Productivity Commission's inquiry into the adoption and impact of technology. The group will also give advice to the chief technology officer when they're appointed, and explore ways emerging technology will impact the workforce. 


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