The future of work and the skills and capabilities required over the next two decades were the big themes of the Vernier Foundation’s ‘Annual Youth Forum’, held in August at Kooyong Tennis Club in south-east Melbourne.

The Foundation is the charitable arm of the Vernier Society and was established with the aim of encouraging young people into careers in engineering and manufacturing. At the Forum, the audience, largely comprising young people from Year 7 to Year 11 along with Vernier Society members, enjoyed presentations by four speakers, each offering perspectives on the challenges and opportunities created by the future paradigms of work.

The first speaker was Shona McPherson from the Foundation of Young Australians (FYA), a non-profit organisation with the express aim of “backing the next generation of young people who are going to rethink the world and create a better future”. McPherson began by asking “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She also expanded on the changing nature of work, explained that the FYA’s latest research showed that future workers will change jobs and careers much more frequently than past generations and will therefore need to relearn new capabilities. McPherson also stressed that digital literacy, bilingual skills, critical thinking and creativity, and a strong foundation in STEM subjects were key skills for the new workplace.

Dr Mark Easton, Associate Dean at RMIT, dicsussed how new joint projects between industry and RMIT were opening up new applications for automated technologies, helping to make workplaces safer and more productive. With his particular specialism in material science, Easton also showed some of the new medical applications opened up by additive manufacturing, specifically in the treatment of bone cancers.

The next speaker, Dr Mike Brown of Latrobe University, drew on his own experience as an apprentice to explain how tertiary education, particularly through the TAFE sector with its strong links to industry, can offer an alternative and equally satisfying pathway into engineering and manufacturing careers. Brown also described the importance for school STEM teachers to have strong industry links and pursue new teaching methods (through Latrobe) for the skills of the future.

The final presentation offered an industry perspective from Dr Steve Dowey – the Technology Manager for Sutton Tools. Dowey explained how the Internet of Things is driving a Fourth Industrial Revolution, and demonstrated how technology was opening up new ways of looking at productivity. He showed how he could monitor the real-time performance of machines in the Sutton factory while at the event, but stressed that companies don’t need to be really smart to take advantage of these emerging technologies – they just need to be ‘smart enough’, taking a steady incremental approach to increase productivity cost-effectively.

The presentations were followed by a short Q&A session with the panelists. The Foundation also gave out prizes for a competition where two schools – Dandenong High School and Peninsula Grammar School – who in 80 words or less were asked to write “I want to become an engineer because…” It was noted that the entries all had a strong philanthropic message in the entries: “to build environmentally friendly homes so we can live in peace with our planet instead of destroying nature”; “to resolve problems in our society”; “to invent things that will amaze the world”; “to help people with diseases”; and “to build a better future”.

While not attempting to offer a panacea to the challenge of future work, the event highlight the need for educators, academia and industry to work closer together in inspiring Australia’s young people to realise that engineers and a vibrant manufacturing industry are essential to our future global prosperity.