Developing skills for today's world

Last week I was pleased to make a presentation on skills for the future - and today - to the School Council at Kawana Waters State College here on Australia’s Sunshine Coast. This blog is a summary of my presentation.

In 1985, I started an undergraduate degree in marketing at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, I really enjoyed my time there and the experience and degree has been very useful in my career. However, I do remember sitting in a large lecture theatre with 300+ of my fellow first year students and realising that we were effectively all being taught to be ‘Worldwide Marketing Director for Coca-Cola’.


By this I mean the course was largely pitched at the executive level of very large global companies, typically consumer goods businesses with massive brands and budgets. My degree did prove useful for my first job in international brand management at Dulux near London but wasn’t quite as useful when I was the co-founder and CEO of a startup just a few years later - working with almost no budget!

The perceived positioning of the course didn’t really reflect the world of work in the 1990s when I graduated and certainly would not be a good positioning today. There are no Coca-Colas here on the Sunshine Coast as the business by size graphic below illustrates.


This shows that 61% of local businesses are non employing, i.e. they only employ the business owner and a further 27.5% employ less than 5 employees. So a very different employment market.

These figures are not unique to the Sunshine Coast, the pattern is the same for Australia as a whole:

  • In 2017-18, almost two-thirds of business in Australia (62.1%) were non employing. 

  • Non employing businesses also had the largest increase (up 4.8% or 65,496 businesses).

  • The most common employing businesses had between 1 and 4 employees.

  • The least common had 200 or more employees

  • Businesses in the largest employment size ranges all decreased.


It is also important to recognise major trends and how they impact skills development in schools and beyond. An influential study on the future of employment published in 2013 by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne of Oxford University analysed 702 distinct occupations and concluded that 47% of total US employment is at risk from automation. The BBC webpage has a feature ‘Will a robot take your job?’ which is based on the research by Oxford University and enables you to view the risk of automation of specific professions.

Here is a screen shot for Chartered Accounting:


Automation will make a major impact on many careers, with regards to skills development the key steps are:

  1. Be aware of the likely impact of automation on professions of interest.

  2. Build understanding of technologies involved and how they can be used to add value.

  3. Understand new career and skills opportunities.

  4. Develop the key human skills that will add value and be most difficult to automate - including higher cognitive skills, social and emotional skills - as well as technological skills.

Different ways of working

If we are not all going to be the next Worldwide Marketing Director for Coca-Cola, what will we do? Many of us will continue to be employees - for example in the Health and Public Sectors and with small businesses - and many will be free agents or independent workers - think designers, contractors, consultants, Uber drivers etc - and others will continue to hold down a part time or full time job with a side hustle - perhaps an online business - to top up our income.


Surveys regularly highlight a very large percentage of young people want to start a business at some point - for example a report by Barclays in the UK found 82% young people (16-21) were aspiring small business people or entrepreneurs. The reality is that most of these people will not follow up on that ambition and have several barriers in their way - including financial resources, less developed personal networks and lack of experience. Research by Harvard Business School and others consistently highlights that the average age of founders of successful startups at establishment is typically 40- 45. This is typically because the founders have industry experience, strong networks and the finance to get started.

At the school and university level, these finding’s would suggest that education needs to be realistic and make people aware of opportunities to start a business but not unrealistically push this as an option for everyone. Not everyone is going to be Worldwide Marketing Director for Coca-cola and not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur. Some younger entrepreneurs will have the motivation and skills to start a new business - and may spot major new opportunities - but for many people the best advice would be to get some experience, expand your horizons, build networks and make the most of opportunities for education and travel.

Although we hear a lot about the college dropouts - Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg etc - the evidence from the Startup Muster survey in Australia shows that more than four in five Australian startup founders are university graduates. Today, entrepreneurial students and graduates can make the most of a university incubator, accelerator, mentoring scheme or entrepreneurship courses. Several universities in Australia are positioning themselves as attractive places for entrepreneurial students, for example QUT promotes entrepreneurship as the new graduate career destination and offers a wide range of courses and extra-curricula activities to support budding entrepreneurs.

Stanford University - a major contributor to the development of Silicon Valley - has 145 courses on entrepreneurship.

A new skillset


The skills list above is primarily aimed at entrepreneurs, based on my experience working with a few hundred startup entrepreneurs. However, it is not really just a list for entrepreneurs it is relevant to most of us - certainly to the independent workers, small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Finally, it is important to remember that we are all different and everyone has different skills, for many young people - and people at any age - the key is to find what you are passionate about, what you are good at and then build upon those skills. Exposure to different people, working in different ways in different sectors can help young people to find a pathway that is right for them.

Colin Graham