Teaching 21st Century Skills to Ready Students for the World of Work


This page in:

What are the jobs of the future? How can I steer my daughter to a career which offers the best potential for secure employment? If I am honest with her, no one really knows. A decade ago, who had heard of an App Developer or a Chief Listening Officer? These jobs, like so many others, simply didn’t exist.

But while we may not know exactly which jobs will come on stream, we have a good idea of which skills will serve people best in the future –analytical thinking, problem-identification and solving, time management, adaptability, and the capacity for collaboration and effective communication.  And we know these skills can be taught.
The education world is now buzzing with talk around how to equip youth with 21st Century skills. This topic and others around employability will be a focus of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) Private Education Conference in San Francisco on April 1-2, a gathering of innovators and investors from around the world who are working to solve challenges in education. 
Brian Waniewski, former Managing Director of the Institute of Play, says we should be putting more thought into how to teach kids a different way of thinking. “There is a lot of talk about kids needing to know how to code, but program languages change so quickly,” he said. “What we should be teaching kids is the capacity for procedural thinking.” The Institute of Play has been at the forefront of using games as tools for just this sort of teaching.
Games require problem-solving. Winners must figure out not just how to play, but how the game works. “We want them thinking not in terms of strict linear cause-and-effect, but working within complex situations with multiple dependent variables. This is a model for the self-sufficient worker,” Waniewski said.
Complex problem solving is just one of the soft skills that employers across the world need today. Finding better ways to teach these skills is urgent for reducing unemployment around the world, especially for youth in emerging markets. Global studies indicate that over one-third of employers are unable to recruit due to a lack of adequately trained applicants. The World Bank’s STEP Skills Measurement Project, for example, is gathering information on the supply and demand for such skills in developing countries such as China.
The reasons for the mismatch are no mystery. The world of work has been changing far more rapidly and unpredictably than education provision. While traditional education evolves at the pace of a glacier, 90% of jobs created come from the private sector, where markets change constantly.
Some of the most sought-after skills are not career specific, says Candice Olson, co-CEO and Founder of the Fullbridge Program, which offers immersion courses into business fundamentals. “How do you write a one-page memo? That’s a very different skill than writing a 25-page term paper.”
Fullbridge is one of a number of programs that have begun in North America and are taking their models to the developing world. Fullbridge is operating at the vocational level in the Middle East, and Olson says they want to turn next to North Africa. “In emerging countries, people can’t take a lot of time out of their working lives to study, so while schools are being reformed and reinvented we can jumpstart a whole generation on the ground.”
Employers worldwide need workers who blend soft and hard skills. They want workers who have technical expertise, and can hit the ground running, work collaboratively in teams and know how to analyze problems by thinking critically. Traditional higher education programs don’t often address this full range of qualities.
One exception is University of Waterloo in Canada. Their acclaimed cooperative program gives students opportunities for paid employment while they pursue degrees. This blend of practice and theory engages students, helping them learn more deeply in the context of real world problem-solving.

There was a time teachers could assume that what they taught in the classroom would last their students a lifetime. Now they are tasked with preparing them for careers that don’t yet exist, technologies we can hardly envision, and problems that have yet to emerge. Impossible? No. Challenging? Yes. But meeting the challenge involves a major rethink of education itself – its purposes and how we deliver it. Fortunately, this rethink is underway.
Follow the World Bank education team on Twitter: @WBG_Education
IFC and Education 
World Bank: Skills for Jobs 
STEP: Skills Toward Employment and Productivity



Mohammed A. Khan

Senior Education Specialist

Join the Conversation

Joshua Cintron
March 24, 2014

As an online instructor, many of the skills students learn are applicable to technology's far reaching hand. Countless students, adult learners at that, continually ask, "What degree do I anticipate will be needed in the future?" My response is general, as I aim to hone in on skills, rather than a career or degree.
With twins of my own, barely two-years old, my goal as a father and educator is to give them tools - tools to quickly adapt in whatever economy, regardless of major or degree program. Today, it's more about knowing where to gather information versus retaining information.

March 25, 2014

The issue of 21st century skills is indeed a very relevant and important topic for both developing and developed nations. Within the South Africa context a considerable effort has gone into this matter with the expansion and large sums of money invested in Further Education and Training Colleges. A genuine attempt to involve industry in discussions and decision making is yielding results. My sense is that there has to be a two pronged strategy to this issue. Firstly, one needs an education system that provides quality education with a major focus on outcomes. This will mean that that the througput rate will be high thus graduating the majority of children from the schooling system. It is important particularly in developing economies to ensure children learn to read and write and are able to have the basic skills. The second strategy is to involve industry in the education debates. The relationship between education systems and industry should be a dynamic one. Ultimately, it is important to advance skills at a general level in the schooling system which should include, critical thinking, being mindful, adaptabilty, flexibility, being team players as well as being vigilant and curious about current economic and soical realities.

jacqlynne Tumusiime
March 25, 2014

I can't help but think deeply for Uganda the endless possibilities that could bring a futuristic long lasting change and growth. A mix of formal training VS formal training. #skillsdevelopment

Anthony Mann
March 27, 2014

One useful way into the problem of skills mismatch is to picture young people making investment decisions as they accumulate qualifications and experience through their schooling in the hope of optimising their earnings and/or job satifaction when they get into the labour market. Like any market, such investments can only be effective when the consumer has access to relevant and reliable information. With the labour market changing so rapidly, becoming ever more complex, it is easy to see the way that it has become harder and harder for young people around the world, but espeically in countries lacking coherent pathways guiding learners into work, to align their human capital accumulation with labour market demand.
As the OECD pointed out in Learning for Jobs (Chapter 3), this is why careers advice is so important, and especially access to first-hand insights from working professionals who are seen as providing trustworthy and relevant information by young people (employers engaging with young people through schools can be seen as being a proxified version of the weak ties that Granovetter writes about). While this has long been accepted, the challenge has always been to secure such first-hand employer engagement in education at scale and at low cost - and this is spite of there commonly being huge willingness on both sides to work more closely together.
The UK experience (as distinctive as it is) shows that scale and efficiencies can be achieved through use of online networking - less than two years after its launch the majority of secondary schools in the country have signed up to www.inspiringthefuture.org programme senidng thousands of messages to employee volunteers willing to participate in careers fairs and events + CV and interview practice. Use of online technology massively reduces costs, enabling (in the UK) free provision of a service which removes barriers connecting the two sides, providing a significant increase in ampliification into schools of labour market signalling.
Some links that might be useful:

Etienne Ndatimana
April 16, 2014

While we think of the new set of skills required to successfully navigate the modern world of employment (including self-employment), there is need for educationists and policy makers to rethink the number of years our kids spend pursuing formal education. Do they really need to spend a minimum of more than 15 years (assuming a 6-6-3 system) of schooling to obtain the first degree with just general skills? There is need for an overhaul of education systems in order to produce graduates with specialized skills (tailored to market needs) after those many years in school. The time saved and greater skills gained will go along way in uplifting economies.