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21st-century skills – Schools are meant to teach them, but will employers actually want them?

We’ve all heard how important 21st-century skills are meant to be for today’s students, says Harley Richardson – but given current employment trends, they may be in for a rude awakening...

  • 21st-century skills – Schools are meant to teach them, but will employers actually want them?

There’s a claim that’s been made every few months by Britain’s business leaders for as long as I can remember: ‘Schools and universities are failing to equip young people for the workplace!’

With lockdown now making young people’s employment prospects especially gloomy, there’s a heightened urgency to that message.

Many educationalists hold our knowledge-based education system responsible, claiming it produces unimaginative young people whose heads are filled with redundant facts.

The solution? Devote more energy to teaching young people transferable ‘21st-century skills’, such as creativity and problem solving, which can be applied to whatever problems the future holds in store.

Yet my experience on both sides of the recruitment fence suggests this paints a misleading picture of the modern world of work – one that teachers and students would be well-advised to ignore.

Don’t get me wrong, independent thinking, creativity and problem solving are hugely important traits that should be encouraged at every turn – but anything that undermines knowledge in the name of ‘work readiness’ will likely be counterproductive.

As Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee recently put it, “Skills are only useful with the knowledge to underpin them.”

Careers advice for secondary students

Like many, I’ve found myself back in the job market during the pandemic. With recruitment having slowed to a snail’s pace, I’ve been searching for positions in unfamiliar industries, where one might assume my own transferable 21st-century skills would stand me in good stead.

Yet over the past six months, I’ve read thousands of job descriptions for a wide range of roles and been struck by how the overwhelming majority have specified ‘industry knowledge’ as a core requirement.

‘Problem-solving ability’ and ‘communication skills’ get brief mentions, but almost always alongside caveats such as “Must have two to three years’ experience in this field”. Transferable skills aren’t much help if opportunities to actually transfer them are rare.

So what about those roles describing sector-specific knowledge as a ‘Nice to have?’ One recruitment agent I’ve worked with tells me that many companies look to bring in fresh blood with the best of intentions – but when push comes to shove, the candidate who already knows their way around an industry will have an inherent advantage over the newbie.

It’s hardly surprising that experience counts, though I’ve ironically found this to be particularly true of positions in fledgling industries such as fintech, e-commerce, AI and big data. Aren’t these meant to be the sectors most in need of 21st-century skills…?

Teaching for future careers

When someone says “The jobs of the future don’t yet exist,” the implication is that teaching specific skills or knowledge is a waste of time, since tomorrow’s roles will demand new skills that are yet to be even conceived of.

However, I know from my own experience how unlikely this is. I’ve spent most of my career in online education publishing – an industry which didn’t exist 25 years ago.

I was lucky to get involved just as it was beginning to take shape, which led me into a string of paradigmatic ‘jobs that previously hadn’t existed.’ Yet these weren’t jobs magicked into existence out of nowhere; they all developed out of existing jobs.

Colleagues from the diverse worlds of textbook publishing, television production, magazine illustration, product design, software programming, research, marketing, sales and teaching came together to figure out the skills and knowledge that would be useful in this new arena, and what should be discarded or rethought.

This sometimes fraught process saw people frequently draw upon existing knowledge and experience, so that leaps into the unknown were minimised. As the industry matured, new roles became established – ‘UX researcher’, ‘scrum master’, ‘full stack developer’ – but they all called upon traditional skills and knowledge with long roots. Knowledge rarely becomes redundant – it just gets put to new uses.

Creative thinkers

In place of saying that ‘Employers want creative thinkers’, it would be more accurate to say that employers are primarily looking for people who will do what they’ve been asked, and do it well. This usually involves some combination of aptitude, intelligence, knowledge, judgement, initiative and, yes, sometimes even creativity.

Crucially, however, these are all expected to be exercised within the confines of each role, and jobs are often highly confined in nature. Even within thriving and explicitly creative industries, such as computer animation, most roles are narrow and specialised, with limited scope for personal input.

It’s fair to say that only a small proportion of the total workforce has ever really had ‘permission to think’. This needn’t be a bad thing, as it’s how people will typically gain professional experience and confidence.

Scope for autonomy usually grows as employees ‘learn their trade’, at least in theory. Besides, many people see their work as simply a means to pay the bills, and will look elsewhere for creative fulfilment.

More concerning is a prediction made back in 2008 by academics Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton, in the paper ‘Education, Globalisation, and the Future of the Knowledge Economy’. They argued that modern management theories would increasingly restrict this permission to think to an ever smaller number of employees.

This seems to have been borne out by the rise of the gig economy, where jobs are typically more prescribed, regimented and micromanaged than at any time in history.

Teaching adaptability

Perhaps this all points to a problem with the demand for, rather than supply of creativity. The early days of the pandemic showed that people can be hugely adaptable and resourceful when the occasion calls for it, whether it’s entrepreneurs producing ventilators with 3D printers, or teachers pivoting to online lesson delivery with just a few days’ notice.

The real ‘21st-century skills’ issue is that the modern world of work provides insufficient opportunities to use them. As with so many societal issues, this is deflected onto the education system, rather than addressed at source.

Meanwhile, businesses respond to a decades-long productivity slump by cutting staff training budgets, refocusing R&D on sure bets and taking fewer risks.

Next time we hear heads of industry complain about education being unfit for purpose, maybe teachers could throw the ball back in their court and challenge them to apply some bold creative thinking to their own problems. It might even make work more interesting for us all…


Harley Richardson blogs about learning through the ages at historyofeducation.net and is co-organiser of the Academy of Ideas Education Forum; follow him at @harleyrich

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