Australia's chief scientist used a 50 year old science fiction novel to explain how Australia can build the workforce of tomorrow

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I remember reading Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune as a kid and being mesmerised by the tale.

Fast forward a few decades and I never thought Australia’s chief scientist would use Dune as a way of explaining what Australian businesses, teachers, and employees need to do to build the type of workforce Australia needs as it faces the 21st century, its challenges, and the fast-moving pace of technological change.

Speaking at the CONASTA conference in Sydney on July 10 this year Dr Alan Finkel told his audience that the hero of Dune, Paul Atreides, was the benchmark for 21st-century citizens because “he has a remarkable capacity for adapting to new environments and mastering new skills”.

Exactly the type of workers Australian business needs.

But the key is Paul’s learning, his capacity for adaptability, was instilled in him through his education which Finkel says was “not because he attended classes on how to be curious, flexible, agile and collaborative, but because he developed those skills in the context of mastering content”.

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And in mastering content, he achieved this through, “Principle. Practice. Application” Finkel says.

He says the “lesson of Dune” is that Paul is a “T shaped worker”. That is, a worker who has first acquired a “deep expertise in a discipline” – the vertical line of the T – and then built the “flexibility to apply that expertise creatively, as part of a team in a workplace, and to develop new skills as opportunities present”.

The horizontal line of the T.

It sounds a little contrived. But Finkel says that “your subject, or discipline, gives you structure while you grow. Then you have the capacity to branch out”.

Expertise, then adaptability. But expertise first.

And this is where the rubber hits the road for the 21st-century workforce. Finkel says it’s the depth of knowledge which is the important thing. Employers never tell him they don’t “have enough people who know how to collaborate” he said.

Rather, they lack subject matter experts with business leaders telling Finkel, “we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three-quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down”.

Dr Finkel told his audience of science teachers what they needed to do to train their so called “twenty-first-century citizens” to become workers in the same way that Paul was trained in Dune.

He said he’d seen these characteristics in the winners of last year’s Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards. That is, “explicit instruction, high expectations, effective use of performance data”.

He called out high expectations as the key to the achievement and the building of the depth of knowledge, the foundation, on which the workers of tomorrow are based.

Finkel noted Professor John Buchanan of the University of Sydney Business School, and colleagues, report of June 2018, ‘Preparing for the best and worst of times’, which highlights employees need more than soft skills, “both national officials and employer organisations continue to promote the acquisition of skills that are allegedly universally appropriate but yet (as we shall argue later in this chapter) meaningless if not anchored in domain-specific knowledge and expertise” [our bolding].

Buchanan and Finkel made a point of highlight a comment from a workshop participant to the Sydney Uni research who said, “what’s the use of learning to collaborate if you don’t have anything distinctive to contribute”.

Indeed.

The clear takeaway for prospective employees is to train yourself deeply in a discipline. For business and academia, it is to facilitate this deep dive into subject matters. And then it is for all parties to ensure they have the soft skills to enable these subject matter experts the ability to participate in the type of collaborative teamwork that business needs in the fast-changing landscape of the 21st century.

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