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21st Century Skills for the Great Recession

There's a lot of the buzz in the field of education these days surrounding the topic of 21st century skills.  That's the latest term for practical skills we all need to learn, beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, which are still important, too.  But what are 21st century skills? 

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills does an excellent job of pursuing the answer to this question, and their many reports are recommended reading for anyone working in educational media.  Their preferred method of determining what skills students need is to poll executives and HR professionals at Fortune 500 companies.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and many skills they've identified, like creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are useful in many realms of life.  But the current economy makes me wonder.  What skills do we need when those Fortune 500 companies aren’t hiring?  Here is a partial list of additional 21st century skills for hard times, built from my own experience with the job hunt.

Relevance.  Knowledge of social media technology tools like blogging, video production would make many people's lists of 21st century skills.  But YouTube has amassed millions of video files, and there are thousands of blogs out there that never get read.  It isn't enough to simply know how to do social media.  You need to know why to do it, and you need to know what your audience wants.  The Gregory Brothers are a terrific example.  They're an innovative young group who fueled their comedy career on YouTube, parlayed it into hundreds of thousands of sales on the iTunes Music Store, and have recently been invited by Comedy Central to create a pilot for their own series.  That’s how to use YouTube. You've got to make relevant content.

The same applies to game design and production.  I can’t claim to be a connoisseur of student-produced video games, but I have played a fair number.  Enough to know they're often quite boring.  Kids certainly know what they like in a video game, but sometimes we all need motivation to push ourselves harder, in order to produce something beyond the minimum requirement.  If a game a student produced isn’t something a student would choose to play in his own free time, what is its relevance?

In the 21st century, you can't afford not to be competitive.  Jobseekers have to compete with more people than ever before.  Manufacturing jobs have been exported overseas for decades, but now service and support positions, technical jobs (like design and programming), and creative positions are starting to go, too.  When someone in another country can do your job over the internet for less pay than you can, because they live in a place with a lower cost of living, how will you compete?  What will you offer that is unique?

Just do it. You don't have to wait for someone to pay you to do what you love.  If you're a writer, write.  If you're a game designer, design games.  The Henson Company often gets asked how a person can become a puppeteer or puppet builder with their organization.  Their answer is that you don't have to work for them to make and perform your own puppets.  Do that on your own, if that's what you want to do.  You must be self-directed.  Then, when an audition opportunity for Henson does arise, you'll have a body of your own work to show off.  You simply can't sit on your hands and wait for the audition notice.  This metaphor extends to many creative disciplines.

How to sell yourself.  When you're unemployed, you have to sell yourself every day.  What is your value to other people and organizations?  What can you contribute?  If you can't articulate this, it will be very difficult to get a job.  Knowing how to convince others is a 21st century skill.  So is being concise.  An essay might need to be 15 pages for your high school civics class, but it's doubtful that anyone will read something that long in the real world.  Know how to get to the point.

Stick-to-it-iveness & Dedication.  In this economy, you're going to encounter a lot of failure and disappointment.  The number of unemployed people is far greater than the number of job vacancies.  You're likely going to face a great amount of rejection, and you really can't afford to let it get you down, or accept defeat. 

Life is not a set of steps that have to be carried out in any one order.  High schools like to be able to show that a high number of their graduates go to college after graduation.  Consequently, many high school students are pushed in that direction when they are not personally ready for it.  There's nothing wrong with working before pursuing higher education, and in fact, your life might be improved and enriched by doing so.  Follow your passion!  I have two friends who work for the same company.  One has a degree from a prestigious university, and the other has 'only' completed high school.  It is the HS grad who is earning more.  This is an atypical example for certain, but one thing about the 21st century is that typical is becoming less and less common with each passing year.  It's important for students to understand that success in school does not entitle you to much in life.  Degrees alone do not get you jobs.  

I've never had the challenge of teaching a classroom of students, so I feel presumptuous suggesting how to incorporate any of this into formal education.  But here are some things that could easily be included in the classroom.

  • Media literacy.  In June of last year, I was working with a small group of graduating high school seniors in one of their school’s computer labs.  The task I had given them encouraged using the internet to inform their solutions.  One student expressed frustration that a search return listed by Google appeared to be just what she needed, but she couldn’t load the page, because her school had blocked the domain.  She thought the school should have Google unblocked and used language that indicated she was under the impression that things in Google were in Google, much like articles in the encyclopedia are in the encyclopedia.  A classmate explained to her that this would be problematic, because a person could find just about anything with Google, including things the school might be justified in blocking, such as pornography.  Personally, I was shocked that someone could graduate from high school in 2009 and lack a basic understanding of how an internet search engine works.  I think we as a society should be just as concerned for this young woman as we are about a student who gets a high school diploma without having learned how to read. 
  • How to design things.  Everyone has an object that frustrates them because of design flaws.  Could be a can opener.  Could be a video game or TV series.  Could be our government.  Why is it flawed?  How could it be improved?  How will you explain your suggestions clearly to someone who might have the power to effect change? 
  • Passion.  It's difficult to shine in anything if you don’t care deeply about it.  Whenever possible, students should be encouraged to incorporate their passions in assignments, be they essays, dioramas, or media creation projects.

In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Frank Oz recalled the best advice he received when he moved to New York City to start his career.  He said it was that "Talented people are a dime a dozen.  What matters are the opportunities you take."  I couldn't agree more.  Seeking out, making, and taking advantage of the right opportunities is the key to making good progress in life.  I think that's the most important 21st century skill a person could obtain.

Photo of a rejection letter by Jen R.  Shared via Creative Commons license.

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