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

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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

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