Bridging the Gap Between Digital Skills and Employability for the Future of Work

In this conversation style interview, Dan McFadyen and Lyndon Blanchard, Chief Operating Officer of the Digital Skills Organisation (DSO), discuss the demand for digital skills supply at both national and global levels and how the DSO are working to enable digital upskilling and reskilling and create a job-ready workforce.

Watch on Channel Edalex (YouTube)


0:00 – Introduction
0:28 – The DSO and its Mission to Support a Successful Economy Through Digital Skills
4:02 – The Impacts of Digital Revolution and Its Significant Role in Learning, Upskilling or Reskilling
11:00 – Addressing the Digital Skills Gap With the Cremorne Project
17:59 – How Can Learners/Employees Maximise the ROI from their Education?
23:56 – Personalised Evidence and its Importance to Learner’s Employability in the Digital Era
30:12 – The DSO’s Vision of Digital Skilling in the Near Future

Individual chapter videos

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(This transcript has been lightly edited for readability)

Dan McFadyen (DM) – Hi I’m Dan McFadyen, Managing Director of Edalex. I’m very thrilled to be here today with Lyndon Blanchard. Lyndon is the Chief Operating Officer of the Digital Skills Organisation Limited. Lyndon also brings a number of years of experience working in both Government and Industry. So first Lyndon, thank you for joining me today.

Lyndon Blanchard (LB) – My pleasure to be here.

DM – Look – Let’s kick off with some information about DSO, it seems like a really interesting organisation. So can you tell me about it and your mission?

LB – It is. It’s exciting times for us. The DSO was one of three skills organisation pilots that were formed of the results of several reviews but the primary one being the Joyce Report which identified that Vocational Education and Training… needed some improvement to be able to deliver in the modern age There are three SO – skills organisations: the Mining, the Human Services and our one, which is the Digital Skills Organisation. We’ve been given the task as a private company – sort of within an arm’s reach from the Government – to enable initiatives and innovations in the digital training area, based around Vocational Education and Training or VET, to try and keep pace with the rapid changing environment that digital and digital skilling isn’t having at the moment.

It’s a big challenge. It changes all the time and the more traditional systems are not keeping up – so our role is to find a new way of delivering these digital skills based on keeping what’s good because we learn a lot over time and there’s a lot of really good stuff happening out there. And then bringing in the things that make it more agile, more flexible and more fit for purpose.

DM – Fantastic yeah it sounds interesting. I’ve seen statistics that currently 87% of Australian jobs are requiring digital literacy – so clearly there’s an imperative there. How important do you see those digital skills are to building a successful economy?

LB – I think it’s foundational. At the moment, you know digital affects everybody in every way – probably with the invention of G3 and the internet of things and smartphones – it affects everybody every day. I’d be surprised if there’s anything more than a small handful of people that don’t touch digital, you know, multiple times a day. So it reaches into our home life, it reaches into our recreation and has major impacts on our workplace and economy. The digital expansion has caused what is called the fourth industrial revolution: the information age. There are very few workplaces these days that either aren’t using digital or should be using digital.

DM – Excellent and so what happens… What happens if we don’t have those right skills in the workforce but what’s the impact on… I suppose – on the companies but also on the individuals?

LB – I think it’ll fall behind – the Australian economy needs to be digitally enabled – it currently is, it’s moving forward but you know, as evidenced by the large numbers of digital skills gaps in particular, the businesses are crying out for more digital skills because that’s the way of the future, you know, in the short to mid terms.

DM – Makes sense. One thing that I was struck by a thought during doing a recent DSO showcase was that pre-COVID we heard so much around the dangers of automation and AI that they’re going to eliminate millions of jobs around the world. And what we’re hearing more so now is that really the demand, that pull from the employers… so that pull and demand for digital skills, as you were saying rather than a push from the loss of jobs. So are we seeing a bit of a silver lining if you will from the pandemic in the world…

LB – To a point but I think it’s more an aggregation of a lot of circumstances which bring us to where we are today. You know, the digital revolution has been happening for a long time. The impact of better internet communications and the like – both mobile and fixed – are playing to that and the development of where the internet of things, you know like I said, everything has a digital component to it. Even the light switch that may or may not turn off as we’re talking, and I say the wrong word to my automatic housemate – like I said, it’s everywhere.

I think COVID has caused a lot of businesses to re-look at their operating models, you know – being forced to work from home, being forced to rely more and more on the base level digital collaboration and communication tools;  it has caused an elevation demand – of course. But more than that, it’s the way that some of the technology is developing – just opening up new paths for economic growth. A lot of lost scale mongering out there about artificial intelligence and things like that but, you know, they said that back in the old industrial revolution a couple of centuries ago that all that machinery and industry was going to kill off everybody’s jobs and that didn’t happen. Economies actually grew and flourished off it and I believe the same will happen here. Artificial intelligence as a tool, like any tool, can be used, misused but it can do some amazing stuff – the advances in health where they’ve been able to access huge amounts of information and the predictive capability of AI is saving lives that wouldn’t have been saved um 10 years ago.

So the positivity from what it can do is awesome and to me I think it’s actually giving people a lot more options of what they can do in the future. The repetitive automotive type – automated type things… can be done by computers, can be done by machines but humans are the ones that provide the understanding, the depth, the support and services that go with all that automation that runs underneath. Sure – there’s going to be certain job types that have less human requirements for them but that will then, excuse me, that will then open up a whole heap of other opportunities for, you know – where the human interaction is actually needed and I think that’s where the criticality of what we’re doing in relation to accelerating digital skills uplift to be able to have that environment where people understand what digital is, they’re not scared by it; they have easy access to be able to career change or start paths of digital careers.

The understanding that digital is no longer for the high stem, high intellect people who’ve done multiple years in university and the like – in a lot of cases it’s very much like your traditional apprenticeship trade type careers. You can start off in digital with limited schooling, limited formal tech training and you can grow through that and have an exceptionally successful career.

Part of that and it’s a part of the work that we’re doing is to try and simplify the understanding of what we call “skills transferability” – It is how can you match people who may have no knowledge, no technical or formal education than digital but because of your innate skills, because of the skills you’ve already developed over potentially a lifetime of another career; you can use that ability to rapidly transfer into a specific field of digital because you already know how to do it. You just need to be trained with the tools that are digital to actually enable that.

And there are some amazing examples out there. One of our board directors, the CEO and Founder of WithYouWithMe which focuses on transitioning Defence Force Veterans into the digital world – they’ve segmented the various roles in the army and linked them to where people are likely to: A. easily understand and easily get to a level of competence through small amounts of training and B. be thriving it because it’s where their mindset is, it’s the things they like doing. The example is that for cyber security, cyber analysts, special forces and people like that are well fitted for. They have the same sort of mindset of, you know, identifying problems coming up with solutions to fix the problems and then executing those solutions and it’s almost like… ducks to water – you learn a few more skills, you have to learn a few more things but you learn it very quickly because it sits well with you, you understand that you get the concepts and actually the tech training is a minimal part of taking that first step into the digital world.

DM – Interesting – so it really is that: we are the sum of that aggregation of informal, non-formal and formal training and education to give us the skills and companies.

LB – Exactly – and that’s one of the barriers that we’re trying to break down within the DSO. There’s a thought out there that, you know, to be successful in digital you need to have a degree, you need to spend X amount of times getting formal training and in certain elements that is the case – you know, there’s definitely a need for those but in the main, there’s actually not a lot of tech requirement if you’ve matched to your own aptitude, to the right… application of roles. You can do small amounts of weeks of tech training and be quite productive at the start.

DM – Fantastic – well and actually that’s a great segue. I’d love to learn more about the DSO’s Cremorne Project. I first heard about it at your DSO showcase but it’s fascinating for me that you have companies that are demanding these skills that normally would be or are competing for the same sort of individuals with these digital skills but they’re collaborating and they’re also working with Kangan Institute – a local VET provider. So how did that all come about and what is that Cremorne Project about?

LB – It’s very interesting. We learned through our Board and through contacts down in Melbourne that – we knew at a national – there is a huge shortage of appropriately skilled people in for digital employment.

The Kangan Cremorne Business Precinct has a lot of very successful Australian-based companies such as MYOB, ARIA, Carsales, Live Tiles, etc. They call themselves ‘frenemies’ and that they work somewhat closely together but in the employees – the skills talent pools, they are currently forced to poach off each other recklessly. So they identified the problem. Kangan TAFE is situated geographically right in the middle of that tech hub. They identified the problem and realised that the more traditional methods of delivering training wasn’t working because it takes too much time, it’s too broad in nature, not specifically fit for purpose and because of its size, it struggles to keep up with, you know – the changing technology.

So we got in touch with Kangan, we offered the DSO skills development model which has a slightly different focus on how training is delivered – it’s very much skills-based and it’s very much employer-led. So through a process of sort of analysing and designing, we’re engaging with the various businesses to understand exactly what their skills needs are. Again, digital is slightly different because it’s utilised in different ways in different contexts in some high-tech industries, you know – a data analyst has a very specific skill set requirement and a very specific progression up the path of proficiency.

However, in lots of other environments, digital is used in different ways in retail for instance. A regional sales manager will need to understand a little bit about data analytics because they need to understand their sales, the trends, what’s working, what’s not working – that kind of thing. They probably need to know a little bit of UX, UI because they need to understand, with the online aspects of their trading, how can they best impact and reach the customers that they have analysed want their stuff from their data analytics so you know they don’t need to be super experts at data analytics but understanding the base tools, the concepts of how to translate information into insights that improve the business are critical skills and if you’re still floundering around shopping and changing individual spreadsheets on Excel, you’re not making the most of the capability that digital has.

So with that complex – everybody wants something different paradigm, the employer-led focus of our model is to have that close relationship with the front end with the employers overall. We believe that local problems need local solutions; so the national frameworks that we’re building are to enable assurance, consistency of description so people could call apples with apples; if you’re an employer, you know that this phrase means this guy could do this thing. However, you also need to have the flexibility that you can build what you need at the time. So engaging these employers, understanding exactly what their skills needs are, linking to the right talent pools.

And here’s another important part of the model: understanding the talent pools and also having each individual… have a real self-understanding of what they want to do, where they thrive, where their skills lie – I talked earlier about ‘skills transferability’, you know – understanding where good paths for them to be successful, to enjoy and to be able to contribute is very important part of that sort of selection process as well. So you’ve got the employers understanding what they need and being able to describe that accurately in digital skill sets, also not forgetting the fact that tech skills are just a small part of how you operate in a workplace, lots of other skills, you know – how to problem solve, communicate, those kind of things… are very important as well and should be blended into any sort of training so as you build the tech training, you also build your understanding of how you operate.

And of course everybody operates differently. So again, that employer-led training to enable people who are going to be employed by those employees is getting built into the company culture, the company way of operating right from day one. So when that initial bit of tech training supported by the more horizontal type training is completed, they’re actually pretty much ready to step into the workplace and be productive from day one because you know, they’ve been trained in how to do it as they go.

So front-end loading a lot of things that maybe traditionally that didn’t happen or it didn’t happen with as much focus as what we’re aiming to do and it’s been picked up exceptionally well. Small bite-sized training just in time is far more efficient than a nine-month training course where you’ve forgotten most of the things you’ve learned until you’re refreshed about it later on. So get what you need, practice it on the job, have that mentorship, the support from within the organisation, within the businesses to develop their workforce, come back do some more institutional delayed type training for another small bite to increase your skills and you keep moving down the ultimate pathway, which we call “lifelong learning” – which means you’re always learning, you’re always updating and you’re able to actually path your way as you wish and that also enables the businesses to path their skills development within their organisation to make sure their workforce has the right capability.


DM – Fantastic – look I want to pull on that thread of skills a little bit more. So in July, Edalex commissioned a market research of more than a thousand post-secondary graduates and one of the very interesting findings of that research was that only 33%, so slightly less than a third of the respondents felt comfortable voicing their skills during their first job search. Does that surprise you and what do you think the meaning and the relevance of that, especially in a digital world?

LB – Not really. First of all, to some degree digital still remains a bit of a dark art, you know – it’s uh lots of weird words, weird concepts that kind of thing – to some degree – builds a bit of a wall of mystique around it. We’re trying to break down that wall because in most cases, digital is actually not that technically difficult at all. It’s no different than a lot of other trades and professions around the… fact that also a lot of the current qualifications that are around in digital are quite broad and difficult to pinpoint down to specifics, also makes it difficult to put across; and the fact that, when you’re just starting, you don’t have any experience on the job, it’s very hard to say: “yeah okay, I’ve got a credential that says I’m an agile scrum master. So I’m certified as a scrum master but have I actually ever mastered any scrums?” – You don’t know. It’s not a lot of point talking about tech skills if you can’t convince employment and again, one of the strengths of our model base around the sort of a general work-integrated learning approach that is you get your experience as you’re getting your training and within the organisation that’s going to employ you. And I think that’s very, very powerful.

The other side of that coin is: also with our model in the majority of cases, we would like to see that the talent, the employers or students and the employers have already made an agreement before training commences that there will be either employment during in some form of traineeship, apprenticeship or that kind of thing; or at the end of the training they will be guaranteed employment subject to, you know – satisfactory completion of the training. Again that’s pretty powerful. That applies a whole heap of efficiencies into the system. At the moment I decide to go away and do some courses that I think might be good for my upskilling and then I go out into the real world and tell my skills until someone employs me. I might have picked the wrong skill sets, they might not be in demand, they might not suit me because I haven’t really had a detailed understanding of what my personal characteristics suit towards. This process – it gets all that stuff out of the way before people commit to periods of training, periods of time down a specific speciality that they actually might find later on they don’t enjoy.

Hopefully this actually removes some of those issues and provides that motivation to help. We’ve already done the handshake with the employer, we understand the cultural fit, we understand this is going to be a cool place to work in and the employer knows that when they finish that period of training – whatever it may be – which again, work-integrated learning so it’s backed up with on-the-job examples, on-the-job training – those kind of things, you know – they know they’re going to get an employee that’s fit for purpose from day one.

DM – Thanks. That makes a lot of sense and certainly we’re seeing from our market research and other studies that reveal the majority of individuals are really focusing on skills-based – you’re looking ahead to skills-based training and alternative credentials.

LB – I think it’s almost essential in digital – no doubt some people will argue – but the way I see digital employed across the workforce is, like I said before – it’s everywhere. But the way it’s employed and the skills that you need are different. The most obvious things are some organisations use Microsoft, some use Oracle, some use whatever. If you don’t have certifications or credentials linking to those specific tools then it’s not necessarily a barrier to entry but it just identifies that: “yeah – okay you know how to use Microsoft, we want you to know how to use Oracle, we know we’re going to have to spend a little bit of time cross-training you from one system to another.” And that kind of thing is important.

DM – Right, right. Well, ultimately it is it does come down to giving employees an opportunity for growth so if you find the perfect prospect and they’ve done – they tick every single box for you – well why would they come if they’re not going to be growing, if they’re not going to be developing a lot along the lines, as you said earlier Lyndon – around lifelong learning and that constant… dipping your toe into both formal and non-formal learning.

LB – And one of the strengths of digital careers is that: it probably enables pivoting throughout your career much more than some others. As I said, the digital skills can be utilised in a whole different range of areas and if you want to change your sort of type of business that you tend to work in to something else, you’ll find that lots of those skills are still relevant and applicable in completely different environments. So, it gives you a whole heap of flexibility once you’ve started and taken those first few steps.

DM – Thanks. That makes sense. “Pivot” – you used the word “pivot”, I’ll pivot us slightly but obviously still focus on digital skills, but to the question of personalised evidence and the importance of that; and how does someone prove that they, you know – to an employer that they have these skills…

LB – It’s another one of the really important things that we’re looking at. Within the VET system, obviously qualifications are the sort of… the gold badge to say you are competent, proficient in a variety of things. But there are also lots of other things as well again, because digital is utilised in lots of different ways, you know – a qualification is generally made up of quite a large suite of skill sets or as they’re called these days – competencies. A lot of those competencies may not be relevant in specific applications so they’re almost redundant. So a lot of people will only sort of do part qualifications and they need to be recognised. We’re looking at various options – the current flavor of the month is sort of digital badging; and to be able to have an individual portfolio if you like, of the things that you’ve done badged in a way that’s easily understood, has a level of assurance or accreditation behind it, has a common language behind it if you like; so when I see this badge and it says that, I know this is the skills capabilities that the person has.

Qualifications in my mind tend to or should be focused primarily on the minimum core requirements of the thing we’re talking about. That’s obviously an important part but only part of it and then we have what wraps around the individual to make them a whole employee. You’ve got those vendor certifications I talked about, potentially micro-credentials from potentially completely unrelated to digital skill sets but you might have to have a degree of understanding of business management to be able to employ the digital skills that you have; so you might have not full qualifications you might not have an MBA but you might be able to pick up micro-credentials out of the MBA which proves that you have a knowledge and a competence and an understanding of how all these things tie together.

So you’ve got that sort of – if you want to call it a “digital passport” that you own – that has a description of the skills that you’ve generated and the like; and it’s something – I know I’m preaching to the converter here, but the next steps is then having that validation of the proficiency of the person applying those skills in the workplace, as I said before – anybody can go and do a course, get a badge that certifies them in something but can they actually apply that in the workforce and I think that’s where that next step that ties into lifelong learning. Your own a digital passport – where the validation of someone’s experiences are just as important as what their skills developed through training.

Again, digital is a marvelous example of that, you know – the amount of highly successful CEO and founders who haven’t got university degrees, who potentially dropped out early but because they had a passion, they learned by themselves, they learned by doing, not by learning – so to speak and became very successful and digital’s just set up for that. There is a huge place for institutionalised training and people should not shy away from that. But there’s also how to harness those technical skills in different work environments – that are not courses, that’s life experience and just personal aptitude.

DM – Yeah I agree, totally agreed and ultimately these skills passports have to provide a framework or a range of frameworks that provide context and, as you said – give some sense to the proficiency…

LB – Yes, and a validation, you know – there can be certain things that don’t particularly need validation; they’re just expressions of past experiences and that kind of thing; but others need a more national level assurance benchmark so people can understand that this is an apple and that’s an apple.

DM – It makes sense. Let’s talk a little bit about equity and how we ensure that we’re bringing everyone, again – referring back to that stats of 87% of jobs today requiring digital skills – we know that’s only going to increase. So how do we ensure that we’re bringing everyone along and giving the entire Australian population an opportunity to make sure that they don’t miss this digital boat?

LB – I sound a bit like a breaking record because, again you know – digital is perfect for this. Digital has the ability to be employed across everybody. Anybody can competently use digital tools and that kind of thing regardless of who they are, where they come from, what their strengths are – regardless. If they have the right amount of understanding it, people can gain support and tools which demystify the digital world and actually put things simply to people to give them informed choices of where they go.

You can work remotely, you can be in… a little bit past the middle of nowhere and as long as you’ve got some form of internet connection, you can be as productive as if you’re sitting in the middle of New York. So, the range of opportunities for everybody in digital is almost endless.

DM – Interesting… Look, you’ve shared so much about today and your work today at DSO. I’m going to ask you to gaze into your crystal ball and predict the future – well, at least part of the future I mean, where if we look two, three years down the road where do you see digital skilling at that point? What should we be hoping for? What should we be looking out for potentially?

LB – What I’m hoping is that the mystifications of digital are removed and it just becomes a tool and a thing that we use naturally and that we decide to increase our understanding knowledge and proficiency down the paths that we want to go. Training, support, understanding should be available for everybody – shouldn’t be onerous, well relevant. It should be embedded in businesses workforce development and that kind of thing; and like I said, easy to access. It should be fit for purpose so I’m not doing a whole heap of stuff because I have to, because that’s what the course says I need to do. I’m doing the things that are relevant and pertinent to me at the time, underlaid with the other skills – the non-tech skills that I need to actually be able to use those tech skills in the workplace. You know, if we can even get part of the way there to make them fit-for-purpose, agile training that’s not onerous, then I’ll be very proud of that.

DM – Fantastic. Great – look it’s a wide-ranging discussion and many more topics that I’d love to dive into but just within an interest of time – probably one more question: I know from our previous discussions where we’re both fans of big complex models and diagrams and, you know – the components, and how they work…

LB – Concurred with my PowerPoints have you?

DM – As with mine but thinking about, you know – for the learners, further for companies – what tools do you have? What are you working on at the DSO to help this future that you’ve outlined?

LB – It’s linked into the simplification thing. The ability for us to put together some tools at the moment we’re looking at some sort of proof of concept type tools to support in-house learning of digital literacy, digital fluency type skills and training. Tools that will enable an organisation to understand what their actual workforce capability is? What their skill sets they already have are? And how to close those skill gaps if they have them?

But first you need to understand what skills you need. So again, there’s support tools that we’re developing or more accurately that we’re using successful commercial models that will support to help particularly small and medium enterprises – now they make up to 80% of the Australian workforce. They don’t have the learning and development capabilities that perhaps the larger corporations do. So we’re trying to provide simple tools, simple support that are not high impact in relation to workload and time and effort because most small businesses don’t have the time to do anything but they call business.

To try and integrate these things, we’re developing a proof of concept called the DSO toolbox – in its initial phases, it will have a couple of tools that will be available for individual use: an aptitude assessment tool which is a way that you can sort of understand yourself – go through a series of reasonably not scary sequences of questions and then through some highly smart algorithms sitting behind the back and based off worldwide data. It is able to give you some suggestions on what kind of work environment you thrive in and what sort of things you enjoy doing in the work, what sort of digital careers or digital specialities could you be more suited to? So it helps you from taking this broad scary world of digital to something that’s: “oh, you can… because you’re like this, because you like that you’re possibly suited towards these kind of specialities and then at the end of that path, here’s some opportunities that you have for: A. upskilling yourself if you want to and B. potentially touching to employers to start your career down those specific digital paths.”

DM – Fantastic. Well – look looking forward to those tools and tools as they get developed and released and relevant for all of us

LB – You know, as I said proof of concepts because there’s a lot of really good stuff out there anyway. One of the main things that we’re very careful of in the DSO was that we are not trying to reinvent the wheel – our model was built around understanding best practice, that’s actually happening out there now and then most of those best practices are quite focused on the business requirements within the organisation that’s developed those tools or process techniques. What we’re trying to do is lift those up to give them a more national applicability. So they’re useful for huge corporations right down to those really, really important 80% of our smaller medium enterprises.

DM – Fantastic. Wonderful – thank you so much for your time today. Really appreciate your insights into the marketplace, into the DSO and the tools and the approaches, the way you’re modeling things and really looking to improve our digital world and help not only individuals but companies and educational institutions along the way. So thank you again for your time.

LB – It’s been my pleasure and a joy to talk to you about something that I’m exceptionally passionate about and that’s critical for our development as a nation – the goal we have is to have Australia become a leading digital economy by 2030. That’s not that far away and we’ve got all the capability. It’s just a case of simplifying what we do now, making it more accessible and as I said demystifying digital to start those careers.

DM – Fantastic, wonderful… Well, thank you again for your time and looking forward to the next time.

LB – Thank you – it’s been my pleasure.

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