The 21st Century Workplace

Skills for Success Part One

Most Americans agree that the workplace is changing and that the skills necessary for success in the 21st century workplace are different from those needed in the 20th century. In his book A Whole New Mind, author Daniel H. Pink writes that we are "moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age" [Pink, 2005, p. 33]. He argues that the workplace is changing as a result of three factors--Asia, abundance, automation-and that to remain competitive workers will need new skills [Pink, 2005, p. 46]. According to Pink "in the Conceptual Age, what we need . . . is a whole new mind"--one that incorporates both right brain and left brain directed aptitudes (Pink, 2005, p. 51). Where the left brain is "sequential, logical, and analytical," the right brain is "nonlinear, intuitive, and holistic." He notes that while the "defining skills of the previous era are necessary," they are "no longer sufficient." Instead he argues, the "right brain qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders" (Pink, 2005, p. 3).

The Changing Workplace

Pink's findings concur with those of other experts and researchers who have studied the changing workplace and the skills that will be needed for continued work success. The enGauge 21st Century Skills notes in its report on Literacy in the Digital Age that "experts at the U.S. Department of Labor... assert, ‘The influence of technology will go beyond new equipment and faster communication, as work and skills will be redefined and reorganized' " (enGauge, 2003, p. 8). The enGauge report asserts that "rapid change and increased competition require that workers use their ‘soft skills' to adapt quickly to changing technologies and organizational structures" (enGauge, 2003, p. 8).

According to this study "As society changes, the skills needed to negotiate the complexities of life also change. In the early 1900s, a person who had acquired simple reading, writing, and calculating skills was considered literate. Only in recent years has the public education system expected all students to build on those basics, developing a broad range of literacies. To achieve success in the 21st century, students also need to attain proficiency in science, technology, and culture, as well as gain a thorough understanding of information in all its forms" (enGauge, 2003, p.15).

The workplace and employer expectations have changed over time. "For businesses, it's no longer enough to create a product that's reasonably priced and adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique, and meaningful...," writes Pink [Pink, p. 35]. In addition many jobs are being outsourced. "White collar work of all sorts is migrating to other parts of the world," Pink notes [p. 38]. "The main reason is money." Workers in other parts of the world can do what American workers can do--only for less money. Automation is also changing the workplace as we know it: Computers are now doing tasks better, faster, and cheaper [Pink, 2005].

"The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different type of mind," warns Pink [p.1]. Workers will need to build on the skills of the 20th Century by mastering a new and different set of skills in the 21st Century. "We must perform work that overseas knowledge-workers can't do cheaper, that computers can't do faster, and that satisfies the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual demands of a prosperous time," writes Pink [p. 61]. For example, "engineers and programmers will have to master different aptitudes, relying more on creativity than competence, more on tacit knowledge than technical manuals, and more on fashioning the big picture than sweating out the details," Pink writes. [p. 44-45].

In their book The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argue that two categories of skills will be more valued: "expert thinking--solving new problems for which there are no routine answers" and "complex communication--persuading, explaining, and in other ways conveying a particular interpretation of information" [Pink, 333].

Schools must prepare students for a different workplace--one that values innovation, imagination, creativity, communication, and emotional intelligence [Pink, 233].

In our next post we will outline the enGauge report that identified four skill clusters essential to success in the 21st Century workplace. These skills "were developed through a process that included literature reviews, research on emerging characteristics of the Net Generation, a review of current reports on workforce trends from business and industry, analysis of nationally recognized skill sets, input from educators, data from educator surveys, and reactions from constituent groups. In addition, data was gathered from educators at state-level conference sessions in 10 states, surveys, and focus groups Chicago and Washington, D.C." (enGauge, 2003, p. 13).

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