21st Century Skills for Workplace Success

If you believe strong interpersonal and communications skills are vitally important, you are in good company. For over fifty years studies have consistently shown that managers rank the ability communicate effectively and work collaboratively to solve problems as the main deciding factors when assessing a candidate's probability for promotion.

Stephen R. Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Communication is the most important skill in life. We spend most of our waking hours communicating”.

Throughout the 1990s, communication and the ability to work well with others continued to be noted as important for advancement in the workplace, along with a number of skills related to problem solving. For example, a survey conducted in 1995 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) asked 259 employers to rank the importance of a list of skills they seek when hiring. The skills identified as most important, in the following order, were: oral communication, interpersonal communication, teamwork, analytical skills, flexibility, leadership, written communication, proficiency in field of study, and computer skills. During this study, corporate leaders also stressed repeatedly (sometimes sharply) that “there is no excuse for graduates who cannot communicate effectively…”

In the 1997 report, Alumni Satisfaction with Professional Preparation, prepared by Joseph Hoey for the North Carolina State University, 3,179 alumni who graduated between December 1990 and August 1993 rated the importance of various skills and abilities relevant to professional preparation. Respondents rated how important these items were to their professional work after graduation. The overall rating for the importance of communication skills (4.68 on a scale of 1-5) was higher than for any other item.

When the Conference Board of Canada looked forward into the needs of a new millennium with its 2000+ Employability Skills Report, it listed the ability to communicate and to “think and solve problems” as fundamental skills required for successful employment and advancement. Other key employability skills identified include the ability to work with others, manage information, and use numbers (this last one warrants a separate conversation!).

More recently, a study conducted by Gallup with Microsoft Partners in Learning, (2013) called 21st Century Skills and the Workplace, identified the following as 21st Century Skills: Collaboration, knowledge construction, skilled communication, real world application, self-regulation, problem-solving, and technology.  The study found a high correlation between the development of these skills and subsequent success in the workplace

A more significant finding from this study was the fact that 59% of respondents indicated that they developed most of these skills outside of school.

What it Means for the 21st Century Workplace

The evidence is clear; many of the most important skills needed to succeed in the workplace today are “soft skills” that are not readily acquired through traditional, formal education. In fact, based on common employer responses, in many cases, they are not acquired at all. Why then, if so many sources agree on the value of good communication, interpersonal skills, problem solving, etc., are they so often overlooked by the educational system?

Maybe they are overlooked because they are difficult to measure. Or perhaps we assume these skills will be developed automatically, through life experience and day-to-day interactions.  If so, this is a dangerous assumption.

Now, more than ever, we need these hard-to-measure “soft” skills. Globalization, the knowledge economy, the pace of change, and increasing complexity all require the mental agility and resilience that accompany mastery of interpersonal communications, collaboration, and problem solving.

Rather than assuming these fundamental skills will be present, and then being frustrated when they’re not, employers can select for them in the hiring process, include them as required employee training and development activities, and incorporate business practices that foster them.

Rather than waiting for the educational system to catch up, future and aspiring hires can prepare for success in the 21st Century Workplace by actively cultivating these skills through professional development, volunteer activities, and by taking on projects that require them to work with diverse people, in a range of roles, and to successfully solve complex problems.  

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