21st Century Skills: Not Just a Tagline by Jonathan Tiernan, Strategy Analyst at Foróige

foroigeadmin February 27, 2015

History teaches us that education is continually evolving. While this rate of evolution may at times be frustratingly slow we can point to many significant developments in the past one hundred years. Up until the 1950’s a primary level education was the norm, with only the select few advancing any further. With the introduction of free second level education in Ireland in the 1960’s there was a surge in the numbers staying in education into their teenage years.

Paralleled with this was a strengthening of the vocational education sector which ultimately led to the establishment of FAS, the Irish national training authority in 1988. By the 80’s and 90’s a 3rd level qualification was becoming the new normal, aided by the introduction of free 3rd level fees in 1996 and the upgrading of RTCs to Institutes of Technologies.

The emergence of a significant 4th level sector can be traced to the early 2000’s which saw an increase in research funding including the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland. In 2006 OECD figures showed that Ireland had one of the fastest annual growth rates of PhD graduates. Given the clear evolution of education over the past century the obvious question arises, what will the next stage of this evolution be?

The stages of evolution outlined above had both social and economic drivers. At a societal level access to education has, over the last century, come to be seen as a basic human right. Therefore, broadening access to all levels of education was a social imperative for any socially liberal democracy. The economic driver that added to the pace of this evolution was the country’s transformation from being a predominantly agricultural to a modern knowledge economy. Membership of the EU single market and a focus on attracting high levels of Foreign Direct Investment required an educated workforce that could meet the needs of high technology industries and services.

Remaining competitive in the global environment now calls for another stage of evolution in our education system. A 21st century workforce requires a 21st century skill set. Evidence has been emerging over the past number of years highlighting the specific skills and competencies that together make up this skill set. Accenture's 2013 report, Closing the Skills Gap’ identified the top four capabilities and aptitudes that employers will be looking for in the future as; leadership, people management/ teamwork, innovation/ entrepreneurship, and communication.

A 2011 report by Harvard School of Education calls for ‘a more holistic approach to education – one that aims to equip young adults with a broader range of skills –[which] is more likely to produce youth who will succeed in the 21st century’. This view is reinforced in the 2012 report ‘Youth and Skills, Putting Education to Work’, published by UNESCO. The report sets out the case that skills development is a wise investment because it is vital in order to reduce unemployment, inequality and poverty and promote economic growth. It identifies these ‘transferable skills’ as ones that enable young people to ‘apply knowledge to real work situations, analyse and solving problems, and communicate effectively’. Consensus is growing that these are the skills that young people need if they are to fulfil their potential and obtain good jobs in a global economy, increasingly driven by technology, and not get caught in a cycle of unemployment or subsistence employment.

Leading global companies including Apple, Microsoft and Intel as well as respected companies in the creative space like Disney and LEGO have come together to form the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. The aim of the partnership is to advocate for the need for students to learn, along with core subject knowledge, essential skills for success in today’s world such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, creativity and collaboration. They call for a weaving of 21st century interdisciplinary themes, such as civic literacy and entrepreneurial literacy, into core subjects. They go on to emphasise the need for the development of life skills including leadership and responsibility.

This evolution will happen, these skills need to be developed. Governments, education systems, industry and youth serving organisations need to start addressing this. Those that do will gain a significant competitive advantage.

Jonathan Tiernan works as a Strategy Analyst for Foróige, Ireland's leading youth development NGO.