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Building the Ideal Skill Set for 21st Century Employment

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The most famous line from the 1996 Cameron Crowe film Jerry Maguire – “Show me the money!” – becomes a mantra begun by Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and eventually shouted over and over by Jerry Maguire, played by Tom Cruise. The line has become a cultural marker, and would, no doubt have developed into an Internet meme if the movie had been released ten years later. It still, hopefully silently, runs through the minds of every college graduate when interviewing for their first job, “Show me the money!”


Not so fast. Show you the money? First thing’s first. You’d better be able to show prospective employers that you have what it takes to earn that money. We live in a fast-paced, hyper-connected, information and knowledge-based, global economy, where things change minute-to-minute and the skills you need to have change just as fast. More importantly, you need to be able to self-teach new skills and tools on the fly, and maybe even develop your own innovative ways to use new technology as it arrives on the scene. In short, in order to get hired, keep your job, advance in your career, and be shown the money, you are going to need a very specific set of soft skills that you may not be obtaining in your higher education classes. No worries. This post will outline the most essential 21st Century skills you need to have and suggest some ways that you can acquire them.

The Need for 21st Century Skills
The world has changed dramatically, decisively, and permanently and the things that employers are looking for in their ideal employees have changed with it. These changes are necessitated by fundamental societal shifts in the way the world works in the Information Age. The University of Melbourne proposes the following breakdown for considering what the essential competencies are for a student in the Information Age:

  • Ways of thinking. Creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning
  • Ways of working. Communication and collaboration
  • Tools for working. Information and communications technology (ICT) and information literacy
  • Skills for living in the world. Citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility
    (AT21CS)

All things considered, these changes represent a dramatic shift in the traditional need for specific skills and experiences in new employees. Businesses have learned that they need to be flexible, adaptable, embrace diverse perspectives, and need to have people who are willing and able to incorporate the latest technologies on the fly. All of these factors create a disconnect between university education, which largely does not emphasize these skills and abilities, and the needs of students entering the workplace. Whether you are pursuing a career in retail management, real estate, hospitality management, or fashion this post will help you understand the most fundamental 21st Century skills necessary to be successful in life and your career, and guide you in acquiring them.

Hitting a bullseye in the search for 21st Century skills

21st Century Skills Inventory & How to Get Them
So what exactly are the essential skills for success in the 21st Century? I have compiled the following list from a wide variety of sources such as the ATC21S list of skills, Charles Reigeluth’s book Reinventing Schools, and my own experience as an adult educator and 21st Century cyber worker. Here is a checklist of the key competencies and definitions of each.

__ Systemic Thinking: The Information Age is characterized by increasingly complex interrelationships between the various systems (economic, political, social, technical, educational, etc.) that form the structure of our society. In such a complicated and connected world, it is essential to understand how an action taken within or upon one system will affect the others. Thinking through all of the factors that will affect any decision helps to ensure that the best course of action is taken.

How to get it: Unfortunately, outside of specialized departments in higher education, like Indiana University’s Instructional Systems Technology Department, there are very few places to gain an explicit knowledge of this field. This page from Pegasus Communications provides a broad overview of the concept, but for a more detailed understanding you are going to have to do some independent reading.  For starters, Bela Banathy is the father of the field, so reading any of his books would be an outstanding place to begin. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock or The Third Wave will also give you enough insight into systems dynamics to get you started understanding this important but underrepresented field.

__Problem solving: In a rapidly evolving world and economy new challenges will arise on a daily basis that will require innovative, outside-of-the-box thinking and problem solving skills to address. In many instances, solving Information Age problems requires an understanding of systems dynamics, advanced communications technologies, media design, psychology, marketing, and interdisciplinary thinking. Problems simply aren’t as straight-forward as they used to be.

How to get it: Even if you already have a major and career path picked, diversifying your learning in a way similar to what is taught at a liberal arts institution will provide you with the interdisciplinary knowledge and thinking needed to become a creative problem solver. In my post “The Challenge of Crafting a Liberal-Arts Education for the Online Learner,” I outline a plan for accomplishing this objective.

__Diversification of skills: The job you train for now may not even exist when you graduate. Conversely, the job you end up with may not exist yet and may require a set of skills that have yet to be imagined. Acquiring as broad a base of skills as possible while in school will help train your brain for learning new things and provide a foundation from which to draw understanding when you need to learn new things in the future.

How to get it: There are many ways to go about diversifying your skill base while you are a student. Start by taking a broad base of classes, particularly those that are of personal interest or that provide enhancements of the core skill set you are pursuing. In addition, consider options like internships and extra-curricular activities that help develop useful skills. Consider joining the Maker Movement or pursuing some of these other options for personalizing your degree.

__Tech savvy-ness: It almost goes without saying that, in order to be successful in a hi-tech, hyper-connected, global economy, you will need to possess a good deal of technical skill. Knowing basic things like word processing and spreadsheets will not be enough. Having credentials or at least documentable experience with digital video production, graphics, computer assisted design, game production, database programming or even 3D printing are all going to be increasingly marketable skills as demand for diversification of skills increases and pressure to add value to positions escalates.

How to get it: Pursuing hobbies like game design or video production are great ways to begin. Getting involved with the Maker Movement is one way to find people who can help you learn CAD or 3D printing. You can additionally seek out courses on campus, online, or via a free MOOC that will help you develop these skills. For example, the artificial intelligence MOOC offered by Stanford/Udacity provides a great way to hone programming skills.

__Communication/Collaboration Skills: There should be no doubt that one of the oldest business skills (communication) and one of the most recent (collaboration) are complementary and essential in an information economy where much works is team based and happens through advance communications technologies at a global scale.

How to get it: Communication is fairly straightforward. Most college campuses and online schools offer some courses in communications. Taking classes in journalism, broadcasting, public relations, human resources, theatre, rhetoric, or almost any other area that falls under the communications umbrella will help you develop essential skills. Additionally, consider putting them to use by joining an organization and seeking a leadership position. There is no better way to develop and document skills than to have used them in a real capacity.

Collaborative skills can be much harder to work on if you are not at a school or in a program that emphasizes them. If there is nothing obviously available, consider picking up a copy of Doyle and Straus’s classic, How To Make Meetings Work. Read the book, then seek out leadership in organizations and apply what you learn from the text. The text provides a set of skills that can be used in almost any setting to guide conversation, come to consensus, and make difficult decisions – all key 21st Century collaboration skills.

__Self-directed Learning: As the world changes, your skill set is going to have to evolve with it. This means being self-directed and motivated enough to take the initiative to find ways to get them on your own. You cannot expect future employers to spoon feed you or require that you get them – they might as well hire someone else who already has them. You will need to be proactive and driven to seek out opportunities to acquire new skills that will enhance your value to your employer.

How to get it: To a certain extent this is going to be an intrinsic attribute of your personality. This does not mean that you can’t condition yourself to become a proactive skill accumulator. The human brain is remarkably adaptable and trainable. At the minimum, if you take all of the suggestions above and act on them on a regular schedule, your brain will adapt to learning new things and you will begin to crave the experience. For more information on how to do this read “Priming Your Brain for Academic Success.”

It’s Never Too Soon to Start
Whether you are  a high school student about to enter college, already at a university, or an adult learner taking a few classes online, it is never too soon or too late to begin accumulating and documenting these skills in preparation for hitting the job market. It is nearly as important to know how to market these skills as it is to develop them in the first place. The key to success is going to be for you to document the skills you are acquiring as you develop them.

Work to become a meticulous and organized record keeper regarding the 21st Century skills and knowledge you are acquiring. Go to your high school or college career center and get started with a resume as early as possible. Make sure that you document everything you do and find creative ways to include the relevant details on your resume. One option is to create an innovative multimedia resume that will not only tell employers what you can do, but will show them as well.

While there are no guarantees that having these skills will help you get a job, two things are certain. If you don’t have them at all, you will be at a disadvantage compared to others who do. And, even if you do have them, but employers don’t know about them, they won’t help you at all. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t add self-promotion to your list of essential 21st Century skills to perfect before you go looking for the money.  In order for employers to “show you the money,” you are going to have to show them well-documented skills and present yourself and your achievements in a realistic an professional manner without self-aggrandizement or too much modesty.

Share your strategy for acquiring the ideal 21st Century skills to land your dream job with me on Google+ or Twitter.