Why 21st Century Skills Are Important for Education and Employment Outcomes

21st Century SkillsBy Jon Wollenhaupt

21st century skills are considered by industry leaders, HR professionals, and educators to be the knowledge, work habits, and character traits necessary for workers to succeed in today’s rapidly changing work environment. While 21st century skills are often discussed in terms of a wide-ranging body of knowledge and skills, researchers agree on four critical areas for development:

  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

The founders of New World of Work conducted extensive research and convened panels across California with entrepreneurs, business representatives, industry leaders, human resources professionals, and educators. This research lead New World of Work to identify the following ten critical 21st century skills that employers seek in new hires and plan to develop in existing workers.

The panels conducted by New World of Work provided real-time requirements and innovative solutions. “The input we gathered was incredibly valuable and helped us determine the emotional intelligence traits, soft skills, and analytic capabilities that are indispensable in today’s ever-changing work environment,” states Rajinder Gill, New World of Work 21st Century Skills Director.

A Research-based 21st Century Skills Curriculum for Educators

New World of Work’s comprehensive research was used to guide the develop of a curriculum that is being used to teach 21st century skills to students and educators. Teaching modules contain two lessons for each of the Top Ten 21st Century Skills, including full lesson plans for instructors, PowerPoint presentations, handouts, and videos on workplace scenarios. We are currently training educators, career advisors, and college faculty on how to offer this curriculum at their schools.

California Community Colleges that have been trained to teach 21st Century Skills include:

21st Century SkillsWhat are 21st Century Skills? Here’s What the Research Tells Us.

The 21st century skills training can deliver great value to any organization that seeks to enhance and develop its employees’ communications and collaboration skills, and analytical and entrepreneurial mindset. A company’s ability to innovate is linked to these critical skills, and when there is a deficiency in them, teamwork, creative thinking, and customer service suffers. This training enhances the emotional intelligence skills that are indispensable to employers in the 21st century – skills that can’t be automated, like empathy, communication and adaptability.

21st Century SkillsAdaptability

Workers in the 21st Century must be prepared for changes that could completely transform their careers at any time. Broader changes could come in the form of technological advances, economic structural changes, or shifts in demographics or consumer preferences. Smaller shifts that could disrupt work life include changing project teams, emerging conduits or platforms to acquire work, retraining to update skills, and changes in employment status from employed to self-employed. Workers need to be tolerant of inevitable changes in the work environment and adapt accordingly.

Analysis/Solution Mindset

Because many jobs will be automated or outsourced, 21st Century workers with superior analytical skills and a solutions-based mindset will excel in the new world of work. Analytical skills will include statistical analysis, quantitative reasoning, and the ability to sort through data to arrive at conclusions that will create value. A solutions mindset will involve workers taking in all factors in a situation, including the human and emotional factors, which might be missed in automated processes.


21st Century workers need to be excellent collaborators. Collaboration will come in the form of freelance teams formed for specific projects or entire organizations that will need to collaborate to reach shared goals. Workers will need to be able to recognize good partners, employing empathy to see the partners’ points of view. Today’s worker is expected to bring value to a collaborative partnership, which includes an understanding of his/her own core skills.


The 21st Century workplace requires effective communication via email, video conferencing, texting, blogging, and social media, which is just as important as face-to-face interactions and group communication. In both virtual and in person settings, communication essentials such as timing, clarity, tone and point, relationship regarding audience, and social and cultural appropriateness are essential to a worker’s effectiveness.

Digital Fluency

Digital technology is the underlying force behind the acute changes in the modern workplace. Digital technology dictates how workers can collaborate, organize, and communicate remotely. 21st Century workers must be comfortable with current technology and be willing to adapt to emerging technology as it pertains to their specific industries.


To have a truly innovative team, all members must tolerate the risk for failure and be able to empathize with members who experience disappointment in order to be more resilient and build from that experience. Instead of seeing peers as potential competition, they should be seen as potential allies or collaborators. Empathy is at the core of trusted relationships, which is necessary for successful collaborations. Entrepreneurs need to rely on empathy to understand the needs and challenges of their customers, resulting in new solutions and services.

Entrepreneurial Mindset

An entrepreneurial mindset is at the core of future work. Workers will need to be able to recognize opportunities and learn from failure. Those who cultivate a strong network to tap into for assistance, work opportunities, and mentorship will enjoy a competitive advantage over passive workers. It will not be enough to work simply on merit—workers themselves are individual brands that must be recognized through appropriate networks to gain continued employment. Workers who adopt an entrepreneurial mindset will be open to developing new skills to differentiate themselves in the marketplace of work.


There is an ever-growing need to embrace momentary failure in the modern workplace. True innovation requires a degree of risk-taking, the willingness to try something new with the knowledge that it may not work the first time. To develop resilience, workers need to have a healthy relationship with failure. To stay competitive, American workers will need to capitalize on their innovation and creativity, which is often developed through the process of failed projects and re-visioning. Many employers will seek out innovators from within their own organizations or contract with freelancers who are known for their creative thinking.


In order to succeed in the 21st Century workforce, employees must be acutely aware of their strengths, values, and propensities. Today’s workers need to have a deep understanding of their own transferable skills and strengths that could be applied in seemingly disparate work situations. They must be prepared to pivot as technology continues to transform industries, forcing some jobs into obsolescence

Social/Diversity Awareness

Global and multi-generational teams are characteristic of the 21st Century workplace. Workers should be comfortable collaborating on team projects with a variety of people from varying socioeconomic, generational, cultural, and national backgrounds. Gaining an understanding of how to work with others from different backgrounds will be a distinct advantage to the 21st Century worker. Advances in technology have resulted in unprecedented expansion in virtual teams composed of members from around the globe. Workers must have some awareness of cultural customs to communicate effectively and create a nurturing and productive team environment.

For More Information About the California Community College’s 21st Century Skills Training Program, Please Contact:

Shannon Wells
Technical Assistance Provider – Employability Skills
California Community Colleges
Doing What MATTERS for Jobs and the Economy
Email: swells@shastacollege.edu

About New World of Work
The California Community Colleges (CCC) is the largest system of higher education in the nation with 72 districts and 114 colleges serving 2.1 million students each year through workforce training, basic skills courses in English and math, and preparation to transfer to four-year colleges and universities. The Doing What MATTERS for Jobs and the Economy framework of CCC, which funds the New World of Work program, collaborates with employers, workforce development boards, educators, and research organizations across the country to build college- and career-ready, 21st-century employability skills.

For more information on the customized training programs offered by community colleges in your area, please contact:

Margaret Schmidt
Project Manager, Contract Education, Technical Assistance Provider
Doing What Matters for Jobs and the Economy
California Community Colleges
Email: margarets@maxinet.com

About the Author
Jon Wollenhaupt is a marketing consultant who writes about topics related to contract education, employee training, and corporate learning for the California Community Colleges. His work is funded by the Technical Assistant Provider (TAP) grant hosted at Mt. San Antonio College. He can be reached via email at jon@golaunchmarketing.com.