21st century skills: The future for students’ academic and career success

Young professional woman working in an open office area looking at a computer screen

In the 21st century, people explore, experience, and understand the world around them in many new and different ways. Learning and education is no exception with technology providing access to virtually any information at the touch of a screen. With access to all of this information, it would seem that newer generations would be pushing the envelope on what is considered to be intellectually competent. However, despite endless access to information, students and early-career professionals are falling short. Many employers have found that the younger generation of applicants are lacking key skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication, thus causing what many people call a skills gap. Studies suggest that this gap in higher-order thinking skills is growing (Harris, 2015a). Luckily, leading educational companies are tackling this growing skills gap by addressing educational strategies to help students develop sharper 21st century skills. Addressing the benefits of 21st century skills, however, is one of the easiest places to begin.

So, what separates individuals with strong 21st century skills from individuals competing without these skills? Most employers are quick to say value. They possess the ability to learn quickly, process information accurately, and use information in decision-making (Harris, 2015a). Sounds easy enough, right? Well, not exactly. Like every other muscle in the body, the only way to develop 21st century skills is to exercise them every day. Other studies show people with well-founded critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills are far more likely to hold administrative positions and are more likely to be promoted (Harris, 2015b). Many employers also mentioned that they are more interested in their applicant’s level of critical thinking, rather than their educational background (ACCU, 2013). Additionally, companies that have employees who demonstrate strong 21st century skills save time and money through better decision making, planning, and implementation of their teams. This, in combination with the growing skills gap mentioned earlier, has put the search for individuals with these skills at the forefront of business’ endeavors.

The growing demand and importance of these skills from employers has brought educators of all levels into the center of the solution process to this growing skills gap, though there is a greater focus in post-secondary education (GDCF, 2015). The education system’s ability to develop and respond to this growing need of skills is central to the integrity of the education system remaining the center for job readiness for future generations of workers. This has led to a restructuring of educational curricula, teaching, and test taking, though this has yet to be a unanimous process. Examples of these changes include better curricula to support abstract knowledge on subjects, teaching that focuses on problem-based learning, and testing that can measure student’s progression into their very own 21st century skills mindset. However, the process of teaching skills such as self-direction, collaboration, and creativity is not a straightforward, or fully understood, process. (Rotherham & Willingham, 2009). Nonetheless, students with these skills are highly sought after by employers and correlational studies that support this show some predictability between students with these skills and their GPA and job performance (Harris, 2015b).

Additionally, there is a growing appreciation for students with liberal arts degrees due to this need for 21st century skills. One of the greatest differences these degrees have from other non-liberal arts degrees is that students with liberal arts degrees are more likely to report that their degree helped them in their career and students with these degrees are more likely to hold higher positions and make more money. This has been attributed to liberal arts degrees focus on critical thinking and clear communication. Also, these degrees have been acclaimed for encouraging students to think “outside the box” in a critical way (Sadove, 2014).

However, no education system is perfect and it is not to say that the education system is singly responsible for the development of these critical 21st century skills. Students themselves are in the center of the solution process of gaining and developing these skills, which will not only improve their success in their studies, but also in their future careers. This is also important when taking into account that some students, despite the growing efforts and knowledge on these skills, may find themselves in the midst of a program that does not emphasize and implement the necessary strategies to help students foster their critical thinking, communicating, and problem-solving skills. Students who want to take action in developing these skills can find many resources on the internet through websites like criticalthinking.org and on many university websites.

It is also beneficial for students to begin thinking about their thinking, or in other words, begin conscious and active self-reflection and questioning, which some evidence suggests is an important first step for students (Hollister, 2015). It is also important for all students, especially those with few academic resources, to research these skills and join conversations on the matter through resources such as online blogs and with other interested peers and educators. The greater the initiative students make in learning about 21st century skills and how to develop their own, the greater the advantage they will have over their peers in developing and utilizing these skills in their years of schooling and careers to come. Becoming a critically conscious student will surely play a pivotal role in this important developmental stage of student’s academic and professional career. And with this, what do you think?

Please join the discussion by leaving additional information about this topic and ways students and teachers alike, can tackle the growing skills gap head on in the comment section below.



ACCU. (2013). Employers more interested in critical thinking and problem solving than college major. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/press/press-releases/employers-more-interested-critical-thinking-and-problem-solving-college-major

Harris, B. (2015a). The status of critical thinking in the workplace. Retrieved from http://www.pearsoned.com/education-blog/the-status-of-critical-thinking-in-the-workplace/

Harris, B. (2015b). Predicting job and academic success with watson-glaser. Retrieved from http://critical-thinkers.com/2015/09/predicting-job-and-academic-success-with-watson-glaser-2

GDCF. (2015). The importance of teaching critical thinking. Retrieved from https://globaldigitalcitizen.org/the-importance-of-teaching-critical-thinking

Hollister, D. (2015). Developing critical thinking through reflection and questioning. Retrieved from http://www.pearsoned.com/education-blog/developing-critical-thinking-through-reflection-and-questioning/

Rotherham, A. J., & Willingham, D. (2009). 21st century skills: The challenges ahead. Educational Leadership, 67, 16-21. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept09/vol67/num01/21st-Century-Skills@-The-Challenges-Ahead.aspx

Sadove, S. (2014). Employees who stand out. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/09/05/employees-who-stand-out/


About the Author
Aaron Pack

Aaron Pack

Aaron Pack is a nursing major at the University of Southern Mississippi’s gulf coast campus who has other academic interests in psychology, philosophy, and research. Next to his responsibilities on the Pearson Student Advisory Board, he is the president and founder of the school’s American Assembly for Men in Nursing chapter and is an active member of the Student Nurses Association. Aaron tutors basic statistics, speaking, and writing at the school’s Learning Commons and is involved in undergraduate research through the Honors College. In his free time, he enjoys traveling, going to concerts, and playing guitar.