21st Century Skills: Preparing Students for Future Workforce Needs

Today’s graduates are challenged when joining a workforce driven by digital transformation, emerging technologies such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, and an evolving corporate landscape. This is why 21st century skills are critical to produce graduates who succeed in their careers. 

College education should contribute to the development of the right skill set. Such a skill set has been identified by executives and hiring managers across a wide range of industries as necessary for on-demand careers today and in the future. 

Skills such as creativity and critical thinking are increasingly sought after by employers. But, is the current higher education offer in sync with these and other 21st century skills which are what the future workforce needs? 

The change in the economic order that the 21st century has brought in every walk of life has required many new skills that individuals need to possess in order to succeed in modern workplaces. 21st century skills refers to a new set of skills which respond to the current century characterized by a rapid advancement in information and communication technologies (ICT) and students who are digital natives as well as conscious users of technology.

Selected 21st century skills, previously known as soft skills, have been deemed critical to modern workplaces. These are the skills that today’s graduates need in order to succeed in their careers during the Information Age, remaining competitive in the ever changing job market. The 21st century skills have been broken out into three main groups as follows: 

Learning Skills: These are also called the four Cs. They are about teaching students about the mental processes which are required to adapt and improve in the work environment: 

  • Critical thinking: The ability to know how to effectively find solutions to problems
  • Creative thinking: Thinking outside the box. “Think different,” as Steve Jobs put it 
  • Collaborating: Working with others  
  • Communicating: Talking to others effectively   

Literacy Skills: Each of these are concerned with an element in digital comprehension: 

  • Information literacy: How to understand facts, figures, statistics, and data
  • Media literacy: Dealing with methods and outlets in which information is published  
  • Technology literacy: Understanding and using the machines that make ICT possible 

Life Skills: These not only deal with someone’s personal life but also bleed into professional settings:

  • Flexibility: Anything is written on stone. It is good to know when to deviate from the original plan
  • Initiative: Taking the initiative to star projects, strategies, and plans on one’s own is highly appreciated by employers
  • Social skills: Meeting and networking at high levels of confidence with others for mutual benefit 
  • Productivity: A hard one for many, and highly appreciated is the ability to maintain efficiency in the age of distractions
  • Leadership: Motivating a team or other co-workers to accomplish a goal

Liberal arts programs offer soft skills such as leadership, communication, and teamwork. However, 21st century skills are not only valuable for communications or philosophy majors. Soft skills are as or even more important for a hiring manager than hard skills.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of business leaders agree that college graduates possess the skills today’s dynamic workforce needs. However, 96 percent of college academic officers are certain that their schools are preparing students well for the workforce.

The workforce has evolved, thus, higher education must follow suit. 

To learn more about 21st century skills in higher education, the session Disrupting Structures for 21st Century Skill Acquisitions: Examples from Urban Serving Universities is a must watch during the Remote Summit 2022, June 8 - 9.