The Digital Apprentice: A Dangerous Idea

The gap in skills is a big, bad, and growing problem. For those that possess today’s need to operate complex digital tools and technology – Increasing rewards will follow – and for those that don’t it’s going to get worse, because three new features of the modern economy are set to align.

The unholy trinity are:

  • On-Demand Labour. Sometime called zero-hours contracts
  • The further impact of digital globalisation, driving a location-neutral approach to employment. If you’re cheaper, but live in Bombay, then you can steal someone’s job, even if they live in Bargoed or Bangor.
  • The growing vacuum developing between those low-wage jobs which cannot be automated (such as social-care and hospitality) and high-wage jobs which require almost a hybrid approach of working with technology (such as software development or robotic design). In that vacuum as the clerical and low-level decision making jobs – they will be lost forever to the increasing sophistication of digital technology – And it’s the individuals in this “middle-skill” category that must up-skill.

Let’s start with On-Demand Labour. So often this is portrayed as fast-food restaurants abusing the unemployed by requiring an individual to be available for work without the guarantee of work. Whilst this is clearly an problem for some, the issue is more helpfully seen in a wider context, rather than just the prism of social-justice….. so here goes with some analysis….

Traditionally, a corporation (from the FTSE 100 to the SME) has been a means to organise labour in an efficient manner – If you wanted to build a car back in Henry Ford’s day, all the activity of welding and bolting and painting needed to take place in a single building – a factory – with a single deployable workforce. The idea of having only loose relationships with employees who would undertake this work when wanted to, would certainly have destroyed any planning or organisation. In a sense, the company WAS the employees – they would be structured and deployed en-mass like an army.

Today though, the speed of development of technology, the demands of consumer-need and rapidly changing behaviour patterns posed huge pressure on companies to adapt quick-enough to keep pace – That’s why so many new entrants are able to cause disruption to very old industries such as Taxi’s (Uber), book-selling (Amazon), film-rental (Netflix) and news-dissemination (Twitter).

The role of digital globalisation is key here – When location, and capital and assets are all digital-based, the gap between those that have the relevant skills and those that don’t grows quickly.

A few weeks ago I was giving evidence at the Assembly Business and Enterprise committee on behalf of the ICT Sector. I was joined by Ron Jones from the Creative sector and Chris Nott from the Financial and Professional services sector. The questions from Assembly member quickly moved from the Welsh Government’s sector-based approach to questions about jobs creation, and here there was both good news and bad. The good news is that all three of these key sectors are creating jobs in Wales, the bad news is that the benefits of technology, particularly digital or software technology, are starting to eat away at a whole range of jobs in the knowledge economy. Whilst this makes the cost of, say, simple legal or financial advice a lot cheaper, it also means that there are now significant threats to a vast range of “middle-skill” jobs.

Which brings me back to the dangerous idea :

How do you train and educate adults to break into this new working paradigm when they have neither the skills or experience?

One answer may be to turn to the technology. Build a new online sharing platform that allows learners to be Digital Apprentices. Here’s how it would work.

  • A number of Digital-Masters are recruited. They are globally-located skilled and in-demand individuals, working across a range of disciplines, maybe Digital-Lawyers or Software developers – the nature of their work is not relevant, what matter is that they work away from a central-base, probably at a home-office.
  • This Digital-Master will be attached to number (probably a small number, perhaps 3-4) of Digital-Apprentices by a screen-sharing system.
  • The Digital-Apprentice is allowed unlimited access to the materials of the Master and they observe the work, taking small-tasks “off-line” so they can try them in small tasks, and, critically, are also expected to offer help, free of charge to the Digital-Master.
  • Finally, as an incentive for the Master, a generous tax-break is offered by the host country of the Apprentice