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Professor Martin Bean CBE (RMIT University)

20 May 2021

Exploring the Future of Work

Exploring the future of work with PwC Australia - conversation with Martin Bean (RMIT)

In this episode, with Professor Martin Bean CBE from RMIT University, we discuss how COVID-19 has rewired the new way of working for universities and the skills needed to succeed in the future.


Episode transcript

Ben Hamer: When I look back to when I finished school and my undergraduate degree to where things are now, we can safely say that education and the way we learn has changed enormously. But then throw in a global pandemic, which not only saw the acceleration of online learning, but international border closures that have had a massive impact on Australia's third largest export - education. It's not just education that's being disrupted though, with new jobs and skills emerging while others disappear. Well, what better way to unpack this than to ask the head of one of Australia's largest universities - enter Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor and President of RMIT. In this episode, Martin and I talk about the dramatic impacts of COVID-19 on the higher education sector, the skills employers need to succeed in the future of work, whether or not the bachelor's degree is redundant, and the need for individuals to take responsibility for lifelong learning. 

My name is Ben Hamer and you're listening to season two of exploring the future of work with PwC Australia. I'm joined by Martin Bean, the Vice Chancellor of RMIT. Now Martin, do we have a well caffeinated bean on our hands for today's podcast?

Martin Bean: As always, Ben, you certainly do. You cannot live in Melbourne and not enjoy being highly caffeinated. It's great to be on with you.

Ben Hamer: Well, I'll do my best to keep my energy levels up with you today. And to start with, I want to ease into things. You've had a not so traditional career path to becoming a Vice Chancellor. Can you tell us a bit more about how all of that came about?

Martin Bean: Yeah, it's been a fun journey back, and I actually did my undergraduate degree in adult learning, so I was all set for education to be my career. But then a little thing called a personal computer got in the way. I found myself working for technology companies both here and in the United States. But interestingly, Ben, every role that I had was always at the intersection of technology and education. So when I got this magic offer around 2009 to go run Britain's largest university and a real innovator, the Open University, I figured it was time to jump from a technology organisation. So sort of out of Microsoft into the Open University and never looked back. And then I was away from my hometown of Melbourne for 30 years and I suddenly got the dream offer and that was to come back and run the iconic RMIT in my hometown. So my career is sort of gone full circle then.

Ben Hamer: Yeah, that's awesome. And I think it's such a great story because it's right at the forefront of seeing some of these more traditional career paths being disrupted. And speaking about the higher education sector, I want to dive a little bit further into that because you've been massively disrupted by COVID-19, particularly when it comes to border closures amongst a whole heap of other stuff. Can you just unpack this a little bit more and what it's meant for the sector?

Martin Bean: Yeah, look, it's been a tough time. You know, as a sector, like a lot of organisations, we had to literally in a matter of days, move from an operating model that was really all about face to face operation to be predominantly remote almost overnight. And Ben for RMIT, that meant 100,000 plus people we needed in a matter of days to be able to move to a different footing. And that's why we've been really fortunate that our investments in technology over the last five or six years really paid off for us because we didn't have to worry so much about the enabling technology we got to worry about the most important thing. And that was the people, which is clearly what we needed to focus on. But of course, for my sector, higher education, the challenge, the financial challenge particularly, is far from over, because for as long as those borders stay closed, we've literally got hundreds of thousands of students still studying with us. But unfortunately for them and for us, we're not able to get them into Australia to study with us. And so there's still a lot of stress and strain as we just try to figure out what COVID normal means now for a spin.

Ben Hamer: And I just want to move on to the topic of skills, because you have to be one of the most passionate people I know when it comes to skills and the importance of the reskilling agenda. I wonder, where do you think Australia is at in this space?

Martin Bean: You’re right - I'm one of those crazy people that I'm in love with skills. It's not something I brag about a lot, but it's true. And look Ben, the skills shortage has been a headline for decades. You know, it's nothing new. But sadly, it seems to take a catastrophic event like COVID to really create that deep cut through in our communities and our society, to understand that unless for for people of all ages we figure out new and contemporary ways of of helping them top up their skill sets no matter where they are in their life, to be able to get the job that they want or get a ahead in their career and live the sort of life they want to leave for themselves and for their families. We've got a real problem. And that, of course, has been exacerbated by COVID. So I think we've got all the right ideas, whether it's short courses, stackable micro credentials. I think the work the Skills Commission is doing in Canberra to help us put our finger on where the shortages are today and where they're likely to be tomorrow. The Macklin review run in Victoria. I think we've got all the evidence we need. We've now just got to roll up our sleeves and really start doing some reform to get people the skills they need right now to get back to work or get ahead, Ben.

Ben Hamer: And when it comes to the role of organisations within all of this, do you think that they're investing enough and are prepared for the skills they'll need in, say, five years time?

Martin Bean: Yeah, look, your own research at PwC is really clear that the motivation of organisations is really strong. CEOs recognise availability of key skills is one of their top threats to growth. So they sort of recognise it as an imperative but are they doing enough? No, I really don't think they are. And I think what it comes down to is we've got to do a better job of mobilising partnership models between education, industry and government to really have an aligned and coordinated effort to go after the skills shortages and really make sure that our citizens are getting opportunities to upskill as and when they need to. And I think the pandemic created a lot of positive progress here with the urgency to fill priority skill areas. But I think that needs to flow through now to reform in the way I often think about is the provider side. The education providers can act in more nimble and flexible ways to meet that demand and at RMIT we've been getting at that through a thing we call Future Skills, where we've had tens of thousands of people come for short, sharp skill top ups to help them achieve their career goals.

Ben Hamer: And I want to get into that in a little bit more detail shortly. But just before I do, I also want to get your thoughts on the obligation on the individual learner. You know, what's your expectation of someone like me when it comes to my own reskilling agenda and commitment to lifelong learning?

Martin Bean: Yeah, and I'm not sure that it's right. It's not fair. It's not the way I had to live my career, Ben. But the reality is the individual now in the world that we live in with the disruption that is being driven at an ever accelerated pace can no longer think about job security. They've got to think about career security. And the only way that you, Ben, will have career security is if you recognise the number one survival skill now in the world of work is the ability to learn and keep learning through your life. And that's going to require the individual to recognise that they are the curator of their own portfolio of skills and competencies that they have to bring to life throughout their life. And that means they've got to be prepared to add new skills, as some of them, sadly, no longer are relevant. I used to be a DOS wizard. You wouldn't even know what DOS is, but there'll be some people on this podcast who do. And when I had to let go of my DOS skills, I was sad. But those skills were done Ben and that'll be for my generation. Nobody else in your generation will understand what I just said.

Ben Hamer: I do remember, though, when I pulled together one of my first CVs, I was so proud that under critical skills I said MS word proficiency. So I'm hearing you on that front. So let's move on now to the skills of the future and to help people on this pathway that you've just articulated for us, and I know you would get asked this a lot, but what would you say are the critical skills in the future of work?

Martin Bean: Yeah, it's a great question. And I could literally talk to you for a day about this. But I think the number one thing for those listening today that I would foreground is just the absolute overwhelming appetite of employers to reward people who have what often get characterised as soft skills. I call them human skills because I actually think they're the hardest to acquire, but they have the greatest impact on career agility and mobility. And so the sorts of skills I'm talking about are resilience, adaptability, team skills, communications, leadership and I could go on and on. But if you look at all of the evidence and all of the data, your technical skills is what they expect you to have. Your human skills are the ones that get you the job and typically are the enduring skills that will get you ahead for the rest of your career, Ben.

Ben Hamer: And I know you spoke about the National Skills Commission, but I wonder how universities and VET providers understand and forecast the skills of the future, and particularly then how they go about integrating that into the courses that they offer. Because if I'm being completely honest, when I think about a university, for example, I think about them more as developing those technical rather than human skills. So I’m just keen to know what you think about that.

Martin Bean: Yeah, well, first and foremost, I think universities absolutely recognise, particularly now, that our job isn't just to teach the technical hard skills, but it is to not only nurture the human skills, which I think we've always done well at, but be prepared to evidence those human skills to the transcripts and really give our graduates the ability to demonstrate those competencies as they move into the world of work in terms of how we figure it out. Look, I think by working with industry and government, we really can do a good job of knowing where the skills shortages are today that are likely to be the skills shortages for the next five years. And right now, you know, we're seeing those show up in technology, health, architecture, engineering, building and biomedical science programs etc. The harder thing to do is to really then think about what they are going to be in ten to twenty years. But I actually think the signals are all there, so the signals are there about where are those disruptive trends? So we may not be able to nail it at a skill level, but I certainly think we can nail it at a domain level. And I also think that universities can help shape that in the Australian economy and in Australian communities by us ensuring that ready supply of talent that actually can draw industry into where innovation is. So it's tough. It's thorny. You won't always get it right. But I think it's one of those areas where if you got it 60 or 70 per cent right, you're better off getting it 60 or 70 rather than being an ostrich and sticking your head in the sand and saying, “I'm never going to be able to predict that. So I'm not going to worry about it”, because that's not our job. Our job is to make those big bets, get our graduates ready for industry, the world of work and and and to be that forward looking sector in the Australian economy that helps drag us all to the other side.

Ben Hamer: One of our other podcast guests, Alex Badenoch from Telstra, spoke about micro credentials as a form of skills currency, given that some skills can become outdated every couple of years. What are your thoughts on how learning needs to evolve and then the role of education providers in all of this?

Martin Bean: Yeah, I think I would totally agree by the way. We're probably looking at a shelf life for some hard skills of being in that two to five year range. It's why, Ben, I touched on lifelong learning before. And what we're starting to see now is the emergence of micro credentials backed up by smart digital badges that you might think of as a container or a record of skills that are now often co-branded with industry and institutions like universities that create a currency for the individual in their digital portfolio to not only be able to show that they've acquired those skills, but then for those digital badges to be searchable in environments like LinkedIn and Seek and other environments so that as employers of any type are looking for skills, they can do that in a much more effective way. And I believe the best micro credentials are going to be the ones that are backed by both industry and education institutions, which I think gives it even greater value as a currency in the world of work, Ben.

Ben Hamer: And look, this is probably a pretty controversial question to ask a university Vice Chancellor. But in the context of what you were just talking about, with the shelf life of some hard skills, is the Bachelor's degree dead?

Martin Bean: No, absolutely not. I think the Bachelor's degree remains an extremely important rite of passage in your continuum of education. I think we sometimes misconstrue the bachelor's degree is all about 18 to 24 year olds, though 44 per cent of the students studying at RMIT are above the age of 24. So I think what is going to change, though, or continue to evolve might be a better way to describe it, is that the burden will be on universities to be able to evidence not only the technical skills in the bachelor's degree, but increasingly those human skills that I talked about as well, Ben. And we've got to create structured opportunities in the life of an undergraduate student to ensure they have the opportunity to develop those competencies and the role of industry there in work-integrated learning is probably the best way to make that happen, Ben.

Ben Hamer: Yeah, I totally agree. Now, I'm going to change tact Martin, because you have a fair few frontline workers at the university. Can you talk about what it's been like in terms of balancing, in maintaining worker safety as the campus starts to pick back up?

Martin Bean: Yeah, it's a challenge for all of us. I'm really struck by this is the first time in my career, Ben, that we've confronted a situation where there are no tail lights to follow. There's no playbook. There's no recipe that says when you start opening up after a pandemic, here's the way that you can bring your entire workforce with you, where everybody gets a say and everybody gets to see themselves reflected in the policies and procedures of the institution. In the wonderful work that I'm doing with you and the PwC Future of Work, I think one of the trends that's emerging now, Ben, is that organisations are starting to go down either a rigid pathway of saying we want all of our people back 60 per cent of the time. The other 40 per cent can be flexible. And then the other camp is sort of the ones that are saying, no, we want to be more flexible than that. We're going to work with every individual and every team to try to find the balance in the continuum that makes sense. I don't know yet whether we know which is the right model. I think it's a little sad that it's breaking down into two camps. But when you've got a hybrid workforce like mine where some people need to be in the labs to do their work or be with students to do their work, and then there are others that can quite successfully work in remote environments and actually be just as productive and perhaps more rewarded in in their life by having more flexibility. I think for us the key is really to not apply a one size fits all, but take the time to engage with our entire workforce, to understand what their needs and aspirations are. And even before COVID Ben, in our latest enterprise bargaining agreement, one of the most important things that people said they wanted was more flexibility in their lives. So the way I look at it is this is just forcing our hand to accelerate the adoption of flexible ways of working, which is what our people wanted all along. We've just now got to figure that new playbook out and we've got to do that with them so that we don't fall into the trap of just applying one lens to our workforce when we have a very, very different workforce, depending upon what it is that people are doing.

Ben Hamer: Well, Martin, we're speaking about the campus. And one of the things I want to go into is the idea of how universities create this notion of place through their campuses, a place where people want to go in and experience what it has to offer even when they don't necessarily have to - with the advent of things like online study. Now I'm hearing organisations asking a lot about how they go about redesigning their workplaces to make the commute worth it, which sounds kind of similar. So what lessons do you think we can take from universities when it comes to how organisations can curate workplaces and spaces that employees actively want to go into rather than just feeling like they have to?

Martin Bean: Yeah, we heard it described the other day, didn't we, as ‘earning the commute’ which I thought was just an awesome way to to describe part of the challenge, which is “okay so justify to me why the commute”. The nice thing about my sector though, and one of the things I love working at a university about, is that we are a community. We've always been a community. It's what a university is. They were designed to be places of exchange, you know, where we learn, we challenge, we innovate, and we kind of experience together. And I know I hear people tell me all the time that the best thing about RMIT is the people of RMIT. And I would agree with that. And digital spaces filled that void to an extent, Ben. But there's a certain energy to campus life in a university that's really like nothing else. And so, you know, other workplaces might have a tougher gig, but I think the same notion of community sort of prevails - how we use our space for much more purposeful interaction, Ben. You know, I certainly don't have any intention of going back to my 45 minute commute in the morning, in my 45 minute commute in the afternoon, five days a week, marching to sort of an outdated way of working when digital allows us so much more flexibility. But I also don't want to lose the magic of being in a room with people when COVID allows us to, to innovate, to problem solve, to reward. And I'm particularly concerned about young people if we don't continue to provide them the opportunity to be seen with others, because it's so easy to slip into the background in some of these digital spaces.

Ben Hamer: And we know that this topic of hybrid working isn't going anywhere in our recent. And our Hopes and fears survey that we ran, we found that three quarters of people want to work in exactly that hybrid way that you just described. And only 10 percent of people want to go back to five days a week full time in the office. So it's a big question for organisations and as you've just touched on it's also got to do with learning and development, coaching, career pathways, the whole gamut and quite a complex issue.

Martin Bean: Yeah, and I think those 10 percent are the extroverts, like you and me Ben, where we actually get quite morose about other people to interact with on a minute by minute basis.

Ben Hamer: Sometimes I just find myself at home talking to my dog in the hope that I'll get something back. Martin look, we've discovered a lot of ground in this conversation and I wonder when you look back at it or what we've just spoken about and the disruption of the last little while, what would you say is some of the biggest takeaways as a leader and how do we retain the good bits from COVID-19?

Martin Bean: Yeah, so I think the takeaways for me would be never underestimate the power of the human spirit under pressure, Ben. I saw people emerge as leaders. I saw a readiness to support the pandemic front line from day one, you know, where my people were not willing to put at risk our mission, our passion, our purpose for what we do. I also saw just an incredible determination to keep that flame of education burning no matter what. I think it's why it's so fulfilling to work for a mission led organisation, because we could rally around our core purpose of education, research, innovation and apply it directly in the moment to help people through the pandemic. So as I look back on it, you said the things that I want to retain, I've already spoken about never wanting to give up that hybrid way of working. Probably the next biggest thing on my mind as a Vice Chancellor or Chief Executive is I don't want to now disable those people that stood up and demonstrated the incredible leadership, competence, ability to assume accountability and be empowered. I literally had thousands of people who stepped forward. Shame on me and shame on my leaders if now that we start to come back post-COVID and COVID recovery, that we don't continue to allow those people to step up and really just bloom or flourish in the new world of work, Ben. Does that make sense?

Ben Hamer: Yeah, totally. And I absolutely hear you. I think there's a lot that we've actually learned and achieved through the disruption, and it's wanting to make sure that we hold on to those things rather than feel the urge to go back to the way things were.

Martin Bean: Yeah, totally agree. And yet I think that temptation will be strong, particularly in those cities and states where COVID is not impacted as much as my hometown of Melbourne, where, you know, we still feel it almost every hour.

Ben Hamer: Well, Martin, to finish off, I have a series of quick fire questions that we ask all of our guests. Are you ready?

Martin Bean: Ready. 

Ben Hamer: First of all, when you hear the term Future of Work, what one word springs to mind.

Martin Bean: Hmm? Optimism.

Ben Hamer: If you could make one change to today's workforce, what would it be?

Martin Bean: Without doubt, inclusion and diversity. It's not only the right thing to do, but it's absolutely the smart thing to do.

Ben Hamer: What's the biggest opportunity for organisations in your industry over the next five years when it comes to the future of work?

Martin Bean: Being able to create a hybrid experience for our staff and students, that's even better than what we had before COVID

Ben Hamer: Now distilling what we were just talking about earlier, what's the biggest lesson you've learned as a leader from the COVID-19 experience?

Martin Bean: That people are capable of the most amazing things when they are challenged, trusted and cared for.

Ben Hamer: And finally, yes or no, is the office dead? 

Martin Bean: No

Ben Hamer: Well, Martin Bean, it's always an absolute pleasure and never a chore. Thank you so much for your time and joining us on the podcast.

Martin Bean: You're very welcome, Ben. Thanks for having me. Take care, everybody.

Ben Hamer: Thanks for joining us and listening to this episode head on over to where you’ll find our latest report, Changing Places: How Hybrid Working is Rewriting the Rulebook. This podcast miniseries uncovers insights from industry experts so that together we can design a future of work that works for everyone. To make sure you don't miss a single episode, subscribe to this podcast series via Apple podcast Spotify or wherever you get your podcast from. My name is Ben Hamer and you've been listening to Exploring the Future of Work with PwC Australia. Thanks for joining us and goodbye for now.

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Dr Ben Hamer

Lead, Future of Work, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 437 159 517

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