Critical Skills Needed for a Changing Workforce

skillsIt is becoming clear that the skills needed for the 21 Century workforce are different than those that promoted success in the previous century. A recent study by PEW Research found that 55 percent of graduates from four-year colleges say that their education was “very useful in helping them prepare for a job or career.” An American Society for Training and Development study found that just 51 percent of employers surveyed believed that the skills of their current employees did not support changes in their organizations markets, strategies, goals and business models.

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age argues that, in the Conceptual Age, success will be predicated on an approach that incorporates both right brain skills and left brain skills. Left brain qualities include the ability to be sequential, logical and analytical. Although the essential right brain skills of the 20th Century will be necessary, they will not be sufficient.  According to Pink, it is the “right brain qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness and meaning [that will] increasingly determine who flourishes and who flounders” (Pink, 2005, p. 3).


Critical skills

Employees need to master a distinctive set of skills in the Conceptual Age. According to Pink, it will be important that employees can perform work that “knowledge workers” in less developed countries can’t do cheaper or computers can’t do faster. Pink expects that two types of skills will become increasingly important: “expert thinking — solving new problems for which there are no routine answers” and “complex communication — persuading, explaining, and in other ways conveying a particular interpretation of information” (Pink, 333).

Other experts and researchers who are exploring this issue agree. The “enGauge 21st Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age” report identifies four clusters of skills necessary for success in this century. This comprehensive report, based on broad data analysis, points to four main skill areas including:

  1. Digital-age literacy: The ability to understand and apply different economic and scientific concepts, a broad understanding of different cultural norms and the ability to access and synthesize information quickly.
  2. Inventive thinking: The ability to adapt and manage complexity, self-direction, and risk-taking.
  3. Effective Communication: The ability to manage one’s behavior, emotions, and motivations in order to develop positive interactions with individuals and groups; teamwork and collaboration; personal; and civic responsibility; and an understanding of the most effective communication mediums to disseminate information.
  4. High Productivity: The ability to use organizational skills to prioritize, plan, and manage for results and the understanding of new technologies for communicating and collaborating with others to solve problems and accomplish goals.

This report goes on to demonstrate that increasing change and competition create a need for employees to use soft skills to adapt to new organizational environments and technologies. The authors of Life in the 21st Century Workforce: A National Perspective offer insight regarding the skills needed for today’s workforce. In addition to career-related skills and knowledge, five soft skills were identified as important. The ability and willingness to learn new skills was the highest rated skill, followed by the aptitudes of critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, interpersonal communication and the ability to analyze and synthesize information.


Preparing for success

According to Kimberly Ladd, Director of Career Development at Palm Beach Atlantic University, “It is important [for students] to have a willingness to jump in and learn and seek to solve problems on their own.” She goes on to say that she encourages her students to have “an engaged presence wherever you go,” – a quality that gives employees the ability to adapt to new environments and quickly learn and contribute. As we consider potential changes to our education system, in this new era, schools will need to prepare students for a new workplace — one that values innovation, imagination, creativity, communication and emotional intelligence.

It is essential that education and professional development organizations and systems adapt to these new changes and needs. Additionally, employees need to embrace the idea of self-directed, continuous learning in order to gain the skills that will allow them to be invaluable contributors to their organization. Beyond simply acquiring and applying knowledge, employees must work to possess agility, curiosity and a dedication to continuous growth. Employees who promote innovation understand the context of their work, manage complex situations and are willing to deviate from established norms to develop creative solutions to challenges.

Autonomy and resilience are critical qualities necessary for workplace success. Ladd believes that “failure is a requisite for learning and resilience.” Ladd says, “We all fail, but failure promotes learning and helps us improve for the task at hand.” Graduates (or employees) need to be willing to jump into any project or environment and work autonomously. Experiential learning helps students develop and strengthen these skills and qualities. Many universities are encouraging all students to complete an internship as part of their education, go on mission trips or other service experiences, or complete projects to investigate and propose solutions to current issues.

As employees consider their role in the workplace, it is important that they remember Colossians 3:23-24 which encourages us to “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. Our efforts to build our skills, cultivate experiences, and hone are attitudes must be driven by a focus on serving a larger purpose beyond own particular interests and needs.


Terry Morrow, Ph.D. is the president of Morrow and Associates Partnership for Leadership and Transformation. She is an assistant dean and assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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