21st-Century Skills – What They Are and Why They’re Important

We often hear the term, “21st-century skills.” However, it is not often clear exactly what that means and how it relates to things like employability, education, and hiring. As old jobs fall victim to automation and advancing technology, the need for transferrable skills and new knowledge and competencies has increased. In this information-rich Credentialate Guide, we examine the workplace needs of the global economy, 21st-century terms and definitions, what skills are important and how are they are taught and assessed.

Updated March 2024 – to include updated terms, impact of AI and more recent references

The Essentials: 21st-century skills

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The Full Story: What 21st-century skills are, why they are important, how they are taught and assessed

We often hear the term, “21st-century skills.” However, it is not often clear exactly what that means and how it relates to things like employability, education and hiring. The expression does legitimately refer to a discrete body of specific competencies. The value of these competencies came to light in a recent discovery about our global workforce: there is a skills gap across an entire generation of workers. If that gap isn’t addressed, it could have dire consequences for global economies in the first half of the 21st century.

Recent studies have shown that some professionals over the age of thirty-five follow an outdated paradigm. They learn one trade and become increasingly good at it until at some point they reach a “skills plateau.”

This specialisation isn’t necessarily negative. In fact, humankind has needed it in one form or another since the dawn of the industrial age. We’re now living in a rapidly progressing digital age. Jobs and skills have emerged in the last ten years that didn’t exist before. Rapid technological advancements have been increasingly changing the workplace, particularly since the rise in the proliferation of AI  enabled technologies, such as ChatGPT and the need for AI skills. However, job training and education in general haven’t changed enough to keep up.

What are the drivers behind the need for 21st-century skills?

Governments, employers, and educators began noticing the need for these changes in the 1980s. In 1991, a movement to address these issues emerged, even though at the time the reality of the need appeared to be long-term.

The US Secretary of Labor issued a report called What Work Requires of Schools. This report identified key fundamental skills required to survive in a modern, high-performance workplace that required more flexible and nimble workers, who could transfer skills from one position to another. They came to three primary conclusions:

  • All American high school students must develop a new set of competencies and foundation skills if they are to enjoy a productive, full, and satisfying life. Whether they go next to work, apprenticeship, the armed services, or college, all young Americans should leave high school with the know-how they need to make their way in the world.
  • The qualities of high performance that today characterise our most competitive companies must become the standard for the vast majority of our companies, large and small, local, and global. “High performance” means work settings relentlessly committed to excellence, product quality, and customer satisfaction. These goals are pursued by combining technology and people in new ways.
  • The nation’s schools must be transformed into high-performance organisations in their own right. Transforming schools in the US into high- performance organisations, means being relentlessly committed to producing skilled graduates as the norm, not the exception.

Turtle and the hare Note that this report, issued in 1991, highlights an education system that continues to struggle to meet these demands decades later. While blame can be laid on budgets and other issues, the truth is that underpaid teachers working in an inefficient system find that many schools are behemoths beholden to the “way things have always been done” and have therefore not become the high-performing organisations they should be. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted this issue not only in relation to education, but to job training in general to meet the demands of 21st-century employment around the world.

That flexibility and willingness to take on new or additional roles underscores the skills gap possessed by previous generations. Work goals have changed significantly over the decades. The Baby Boomers sought job stability. Subsequent generations wanted less of that and focused more on finding happiness and fulfillment in their careers. This is important given, one’s career no longer means a few decades with one company, but perhaps a variety of positions that changes frequently.

Today’s generation craves job mobility ahead of job stability. Now, students and young professionals expect to change job roles and fields at least a dozen times in their careers – with a mean of 4.6 years for many workers. Professionals with more specialisation and less flexibility have trouble adapting to the dizzying pace of workplace changes. The good news is that even these workers can be retrained and transfer the skills they do possess. But they must be taught how in order to do so.

What are the workforce requirements of the new global economy?

As old jobs fall victim to automation, advancing technology and AI, demand for many job skills and areas of expertise has diminished. The need for transferrable skills, with new knowledge and changing competencies has increased. Employees have long embraced the need for professional development and lifelong learning, but even those with core capability and the potential to learn skills or apply those they already possess struggle to prove their worth to employers.

Likewise, employers struggle to identify strengths and the durable and transferrable soft skills that are not easily shared on a resume or through interviewing and testing. Employees are missing out on opportunities and employers are missing potential superstar employees to fill key roles.

Practices like remote monitoring, automation and the use of AI to aid in decision making, analysis, and other tasks, have rendered many employees obsolete and further shaped the future of work. New jobs and opportunities abound, but it means a shift in thinking about job training, job seeking, human resources and hiring, and certifications like the use of micro-credentials to highlight capabilities, durable and transferable skills and competency.

Artificial intelligence set to impact 70 percent or all companies by 2030 AI is expected to provide important workplace functions for 70% of all companies by 2030. It will cause major disruptions in many job fields due to the substitution of labour. Employees who have specialised in these tasks must be offered reskilling options and education on the language of employability and the knowledge to highlight and demonstrate transferrable skills.

The COVID pandemic saw record levels of unemployment, with many workers taking early retirement when offered rather than learning new skills or upskilling to start over in new positions.

What have we been doing wrong? Workplace reskilling and upskilling has traditionally focused on getting better at specific job tasks and meeting performance standards. This made more sense when jobs and roles were clearly defined. However, this focus on outcome-based learning rather than skills-based learning that in turn creates new competencies has missed the mark. This has resulted in a sizeable part of the workforce, an entire generation, becoming overspecialised and ill-equipped to meet new labour demands. These professionals now have no choice. They must adapt to the demands of change or go the way of the dodo.

Is there a difference between 21st-century, professional, workplace and soft skills?

There are many terms used interchangeably to describe 21-century skills, including:

21st-century skills – The term “21st-century skills” is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe educators need to teach to help students thrive in today’s world.

Professional skills – Professional skills are career competencies that often are not taught (or acquired) as part of traditional coursework. Professional skills such as leadership, mentoring, project management, and conflict resolution are value-added skills essential to any career.

Workplace skills – Workplace skills are the basic skills a person must have to succeed in any workplace. They are the core knowledge, skills and attitudes that allow workers to understand instructions, solve problems and get along with co-workers and customers.

Employability skills – Employability skills refer to a set of transferable skills and key personal attributes which are highly valued by employers and essential for effective performance in the workplace. Employability skills include things like good communication, motivation and initiative.

Durable skills – Durable skills include a combination of how you use what you know – skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity – as well as character skills like fortitude, growth mindset, and leadership.

Transferable skills – Transferable skills, sometimes called portable skills, are the skills you have developed that can be transferred from one job to another, like communication or time management skills.

Soft-skills – Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, communication skills, character or personality traits, attitudes, career attributes, social intelligence and emotional intelligence quotients, among others, that enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills.

As you can see, there’s a lot of commonality across all of the definitions used to describe these skill sets. As such, the term selected is usually determined by the market segment using it.

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What are the 21st-century skills?

So what are these 21st-century skills? They are a set of knowledge, skills, and learning dispositions that prepare learners to succeed in a rapidly changing, digital world. Educators, business leaders and academics worldwide have contributed to identifying, categorising, and developing lists of these workspace skills. They aren’t primarily based on content knowledge, but on “deeper learning” skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork.

Whatever term you choose to use, these skills are a combination of “soft skills” and “hard skills”. The hard skill component focuses on digital literacy, which is in increasingly high demand. Soft skills are people skills that involve interaction, collaboration, processing information, and managing people. The latter is known as “enablement skills” or “power skills” because they are transferable to different roles and positions and durable in that they are used in a variety of employment environments.

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According to EdGlossary, while the specific skills deemed to be “21st century skills” may be defined differently, the following identifies the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits commonly associated with 21st century skills:

  • Critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, interpretation, synthesizing information
  • Research skills and practices, interrogative questioning
  • Creativity, artistry, curiosity, imagination, innovation, personal expression
  • Perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, initiative
  • Oral and written communication, public speaking and presenting, listening
  • Leadership, teamwork, collaboration, cooperation, facility in using virtual workspaces
  • Information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, media and internet literacy, data interpretation and analysis, computer programming
  • Civic, ethical, and social-justice literacy
  • Economic and financial literacy, entrepreneurialism
  • Global awareness, multicultural literacy, humanitarianism
  • Scientific literacy and reasoning, the scientific method
  • Environmental and conservation literacy, ecosystems understanding
  • Health and wellness literacy, including nutrition, diet, exercise, and public health and safety

Using a popular framework, these can be further categorised into:

Learning and Innovation Digital Literacy Career and Life
Creativity and Innovation
Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Information Literacy
IT Literacy
Media Literacy
Flexibility and Adaptability
Initiative and Self-Direction
Leadership and Responsibility
Productivity and Accountability
Social and Cross-Cultural Interaction

How do 21st-century skills help to address the skills gap?

The American Association of Colleges and Universities recognised some of these 21st-century skills in existing programs and, over time, recommended other goals to form part of essential learning outcomes for students.

Essential college and career skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication are the skills that hiring managers value most above and beyond specific content knowledge.

However, these skills are often not explicitly taught as part of college curricula, nor are they reflected on a college transcript. While content knowledge is a requisite part of a student’s education, it alone is insufficient for a student to thrive academically and professionally.

On a global scale, 21st-century skills have gained recognition and adoption into traditional education models.

Half of all available jobs today remain unfilled because people don’t have the needed skills for them. Many businesses can’t grow because they can’t get the workforce needed to grow. The skill gap remains, and it is preventing economies from developing. The old adage of “location, location, location” now refers to the local availability of talent and appropriately educated and skilled workers as anything else, and many companies offer incentives to employees to move in order to join their teams.

Many workers are able to adapt to working remotely have been able to thrive, and companies who seek to take advantage of that have expanded their workforce far beyond any geographic location. This requires a certain “digital literacy” and those able to take advantage of this development have found new freedom from the ability to work from anywhere.

How do we impart those skills to those who don’t have them, though? How do we close the skills gap and enable displaced workers to upskill, retrain, and re-enter the workforce in a meaningful way?

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What are the issues with teaching 21st-century and career skills?

We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.

Education in 21st-century skills has been a work in progress in many countries. The methods of instruction vary as personalised teaching methods dictate how learners achieve competencies in the classroom. Thankfully, many curricula have become standardised since the identification of these core skills. Modern teachers replaced the outdated “transmission” model of learning. But teaching these skills is a challenge, because every student learns differently, and training must be personalised to their needs and learning style.

Success using these teaching methods has varied. Educators can facilitate effective learning as long as they follow some key precepts. Students are empowered to guide their own learning. Learners flourish in an inquiry-based classroom environment. They’re encouraged to collaborate, and they’re given the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. Each course is designed to bring out the learners’ creativity.

The sticking point is that much of this effective learning focuses on K-12 education. There are fewer options for adult learners seeking to develop 21st-century skills. Many professionals cannot put their lives and jobs on hold so that they can return to classroom learning. Soft skills and digital literacy need to become a part of ongoing personal development, but there are challenges to overcome.

Adult learners need upskilling that does not take a full two years to complete. The valuable competencies are needed now, not 24 months from now. They need learning methods that won’t cut into their normal job hours and won’t tie them down to a physical classroom location. Adult students need to benefit from the methods that have made achievement successful for secondary and post-secondary students.

One solution is a new kind of job training, based on frameworks that highlight capability, transferable skills, and result in new competencies. Since this kind of training does not result in a “degree” or “certification” in the traditional sense, learners must also be able to “prove” their skills and validate their learning through another means, one that is more robust, specific, and verifiable and verifiable in modern formats, such as micro-credentials or digital badges.

And as the shift towards shorter, skills-based and employment-focused micro-credentials builds momentum, education providers must strategically evolve their credentials and curriculum to meet demand.

Interest is shifting towards shorter, skills-based and employment-focused micro-credentials. Businesses know this, and some are bypassing degrees and developing their own micro-credentials to create a talent pool with the precise skills needed to fill designated roles. Further, most adult learners are primarily motivated to acquire a credential, micro or macro, in order to secure meaningful paid employment, or more broadly, career advantage. But if credentials of all sizes are a bridge between education and work, then providers need to consider that if work has changed, then so has employability, and so must credentials and curriculum.

Employability, however defined, must be related to empirically observable employment outcomes. Future research is needed to determine:

Rethinking employability in higher education has the potential to bridge across the intersection between the need for development of durable and transferable skills such as 21st-century skills, to deliver better employment outcomes.

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How do you assess attainment of 21st-century skills?

Given that the need for 21st-century skills is clear, the question of how to assess a learners’ attainment of these essential skills becomes the next challenge. Unlike traditional multiple choice assessments, where there is a definitive right and wrong answer, performance tasks allow an opportunity for a much more authentic experience.

In a five-year study into using performance-based assessment to measure “those skills our students need to thrive as 21st century learners, workers, and citizens”, it was discovered that measuring outcomes such as critical and creative thinking was somewhat of a tall order.

The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) With the help of the Council for Aid to Education (CAE) – a non-profit organisation dedicated to designing innovative performance-based assessments that measure essential college and career skills – the VBCPS adopted a method of assessing higher-order skills by replicating the use of these skills in the real world. Their performance-based assessment model, using the CAE’s College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA+) instrument as inspiration, required:

  • Creating performance tasks to measure students’ critical-thinking, problem solving, and written communication skills
  • Generating rubrics to score the responses, and
  • Developing and implementing a viable scoring process

After refinement and pilot testing, they were able to validate that  performance tasks could be used to make valid inferences about their students’ 21st century skills and abilities.

A mission-driven, non-profit organisation, CAE develops performance-based and custom assessments that authentically measure students’ essential skills and identify opportunities for growth. CAE’s flagship assessments – CLA+, CWRA+ and SSA+ – evaluate the skills educational institutions and employers demand most and which are predictive of positive college and career outcomes: critical thinking, problem-solving and written communication.

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What is the role of micro-credentials in 21st-century skill development?

Micro-credentials are based on small, well-designed courses that target specific skills or subsets of skills. They are “bite-sized” compared to traditional credentials like university degrees. You would expect to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and 2-4 years of your life on a college education. A micro-credential can be earned in weeks or months for a fraction of the cost of college – or in some cases the costs of a single college course.

This method of learning has found favour with employees and employers in recent years. It addresses specific needs brought by the rapidly changing times. More employers are removing degree requirements, and some have developed their own internal frameworks for establishing and verifying micro-credentials. They have shifted to hiring practices that target specific, transferable skills, or skill sets. These qualities make it an excellent vehicle for earning 21st-century skills.

Innumerable work veterans need inexpensive, time-flexible ways of learning new skills that will get them new jobs. Alternatively, they need a reliable method of surfacing evidence of those skills if they already have them. A LinkedIn survey of global talent trends validated what these skills were.

It revealed that companies struggle to assess those skills without a formal process, and this is really where micro-credentials and the frameworks being developed around them shine.

How Credentialate provides a new perspective

Credentialate is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials to students backed by personalised evidence at scale. By automatically extracting data from existing platforms and using an organization’s own assessment rubrics, we can objectively measure awarding criteria and validate its evidence.

By this same method we can automate the assessment, monitoring, promotion and validation of evidence-backed skills. For an institution, we provide the data and insights required to track skills and competencies across courses and entire programs.

Finally, we have decades of collective experience in educational technology and long-standing ties with global educational powerhouses. These solidify our ability to produce credible digital badges.

Credentialate assesses, monitors, promotes and validates learners’ attainment of evidence-backed skills, supporting the transition from learner to earner. It is a secure, configurable platform that assesses and tracks attainment of competencies and issues micro-credentials to students. If you’d like to learn more About Us and how we can work together, contact us or Schedule a Demo and let’s discuss!

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