Making the leap from auto to ICT

With a little retooling and creative thinking, there is a way many high-skilled auto sector workers can make the transition into the growing ICT sector.

Holden and Toyota’s announced plans to shut down manufacturing operations in Australia have understandably caused a great deal of angst and heartache in this country.

The raw numbers of projected job losses are frightening for the economy, and potentially devastating for Victoria and South Australia in particular. There is a human attached to each job lost, and great potential hardship to the families of those workers.

The community is rightly uncertain and upset about what’s next for these workers, and for those who work for other companies in the car industry’s supporting supply chain.

This angst might explain some of the aggressive commentary that the closures attracted. People are angry.

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I thought it timely to add some thoughts to the discussion.

In the initial aftermath of the closure announcements, there were some knee-jerk suggestions that the “jobs of the future” were to be found elsewhere, and the tech sector was put forward a couple too many times by talking heads on television.

This massively generalised suggestion was met with derision, of course. Commentators lined up to take pot shots at the tech sector, saying the idea of manufacturing workers walking off the factory floor into a high-growth software company was far-fetched.

Yes, the information industry may well create the jobs of the future, the commentators say -- but that’s cold comfort (and a little cruel) if you have spent the last 30 years on the Holden factory line in Adelaide’s northern suburb of Elizabeth.

And that’s the problem with massive oversimplification and overgeneralisation. It makes fools of us all. So let’s revisit this discussion.

The commentary on car industry workers seemed to come from people far, far removed from a factory floor. There is a wildly wrong misconception about who builds cars these days. Car plants are highly automated and filled with highly skilled workers. And that includes many, many workers with deep technical skills -- from software to robotics.

And of course no one seriously expects all of the workers from Holden and Toyota to suddenly move into the IT sector. We would all hope that the companies that supply to the car makers now can diversify into the global marketplace, and that these skilled workers can find other jobs in advanced manufacturing -- in new enterprises building for global markets with scale.

But some of these people may well move to the tech sector -- or at least retrain themselves to be able to work in other tech-enabled sectors. This is not unrealistic, and those who suggest that it is are unfairly putting limits on what others can achieve.

General Assembly specialises in intensive, 12-week, short-course, deep-dive technical programs that give students tools to enter completely new fields of interest. We know this because have followed the progress of many of our alumni who previously worked in areas as diverse as aeronautics to pharmacy but have moved into new careers in the technology sector.

This is increasingly the norm in our workforce. Re-skilling -- or re-tooling -- is becoming quite commonplace. People change careers and change industries with more frequency and less angst than ever before.

The notion of a structured career has changed radically in the past 30 years, and the structure of education is changing. It is unrealistic to expect to get trained in any area and expect to last a full career -- the world simply does not work like that.

Individual workers see opportunities and then set about acquiring the skills to pursue those opportunities. For a skilled worker with enthusiasm, re-skilling and re-tooling does not have to mean embarking on a three-year degree at university. There is now the option to join short-course, hands-on, high-impact training.

So to the commentators who have described the idea of Holden or Toyota employees finding a way to move to the tech sector as laughable: You’re wrong.

There are many opportunities emerging in tech-enabled companies that are finding new and more effective ways to deliver products and services to market. And yes, these opportunities will be taken up by people not currently in the tech sector

Could a fabric design specialist from inside Holden possibly come up with a great idea that could be exploited through a tech-enabled business? Of course they could, and perhaps they will.

What about a robotics expert? Yes. What about a process worker? Well, frankly, yes.

No one is suggesting that the tech sector is the saviour of all that currently ails the Australian manufacturing sector. But certainly it will present opportunities for some.

Riley Batchelor is Regional Director for General Assembly Australia.