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Article Article May 28th, 2018

The skills you need for a job in the 21st century

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We need to ensure that the next generation will be equipped with the #skills to thrive in the 21st century workforce, says @Leila_Hoteit

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Closing the 21st-century #skills gap requires a fundamental realignment of deeply rooted education systems, says @Leila_Hoteit

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Teachers, technology developers, students and policymakers can all help close the 21st-century #skills gap, says @Leila_Hoteit

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30-second summary

  • Today's industries are crying out for job candidates with good analytical and interpersonal skills far more so than in the past, when manual labour had a different set of requirements.
  • Students, who in many cases will have become accustomed to technology at home, can now hone their digital skills and learn new ones when at school - ranging from coding to online research to basic data analysis.
  • From investing in teachers' development to using the curriculum itself to help promote technology education, policymakers have a critical role to play in helping students develop the competencies and character qualities to succeed in the 21st century.

I'd like to think I'm pretty digitally savvy. On the rare occasions I'm not woken by one of my kids, I can count on the alarm on my iPhone to prevent any chance of a lie-in. Our house in Dubai hums with wireless wifi, I stay online in my car and office, and have come to rely on streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, not to mention the myriad benefits of smart air con technology, especially in the summer months.

It's certainly a different lifestyle to the one I grew up in. But I'm equally sure that as adults, my sons and daughter will be using technology that will be light years ahead of what we use today. Quite what that will be remains to be seen, but irrespective of its shape or form, we need to ensure that the next generation will be equipped for this changing world - starting in school.

Wanted: higher-order skills

Do you think you have good analytical and interpersonal skills? If so, you're in luck. Today's industries are crying out for job candidates with these abilities, far more so than in the past, where manual labour had a different set of requirements.

Our research has revealed that students need to learn 16 skills in three broad categories: foundational literacies, competencies, and character qualities. By “foundational literacies” I mean literacy, numeracy, and scientific literacy - all of which can be applied to everyday tasks. But although these have shaped classroom lessons for generations, digital advances mean that kids today must now supplement these basic skills with the necessary competencies and character qualities that employers want and need.

Today's app developer is very different to yesterday's production line worker, for example. Rather than developing people to perform the same task day after day, we now need individuals who can think independently, change direction and contribute the insights and ideas that will lead to a breakthrough product. And let's not forget that in many cases, students today will be working in jobs that don't even exist yet. So as career opportunities emerge over time, those who are curious and adaptable are more likely to thrive than those who simply obtain technical skills.

Education systems, which have long focused on foundational literacies, now need to pivot towards building competencies and character qualities. Fortunately, technology can help.

Tapping into technology

Thankfully, the days of relying purely on textbooks are long gone. Students, who in many cases will have become accustomed to technology at home, can now hone their digital skills and learn new ones when at school - ranging from coding to online research to basic data analysis, all of which will stand them in good stead when they enter the world of work.

Digital technology can also help teachers deliver personalised learning, something that was far harder before the advent of the internet. Now, students can study at their own pace, proceeding to the next level when ready.

Online instruction also allows a much broader population to access education than ever before. Because teaching and learning can extend far beyond classroom walls, students can take courses no matter where they live or how busy they may be with other commitments. This is particularly important for students who live in remote parts of the developing world. Thanks to technology, they can now select online courses that can help unlock a far brighter future.

How governments can help

Although teachers and technology leaders and developers are front and centre in this new approach to education, government, too, has a critical role to play.

They could start by investing in teachers' development in order to help them learn how to effectively use technology in their classrooms. Although professional development requires investment, many digital online tools are available to help them on their way.

Another priority is to use the curriculum itself to help promote technology education. With an abundance of traditional companies developing digital tools, as well as many new entrants to the market, governments can inject some much-needed clarity by setting standards, endorsing products or making purchases for the institutions they run. Similarly, they can also support those high quality but smaller companies that lack the capability to scale. In such a fragmented market, governments can help them stand out by either investing in them directly or helping them access a larger audience in order to test and accelerate development.

And finally, they could become more flexible when it comes to funding. Although education funding has traditionally been term based - which limits students' ability to progress at an advanced pace - governments should consider more flexible funding mechanisms that support students as they progress from one course to another based on demonstrated mastery, rather than rigid spring and fall terms.

Time to seize the opportunity

Closing the 21st-century skills gap won't happen overnight. It requires a fundamental realignment of deeply rooted education systems, as well as a concerted effort from teachers, technology developers, students and policymakers.

We all want the best for the next generation. We all cherish their futures. And we all want them to succeed. But this won't happen without tapping into the vast potential and power of digital technology. In many countries this is already happening. But there's much more to be done.

It's time to move from steps to strides - starting now.


Read our full report, The future of technology education


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Written by:

Leila Hoteit Partner and Managing Director at The Boston Consulting Group, Abu Dhabi
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