The workforce has changed. And with its transformation, workers have evolved their qualifications to meet new demands.

These changes are driven by technology — and the workforce must respond. Higher education institutions must also adapt to provide relevant, capable graduates who are properly equipped for today’s corporate landscape.

We’re in the information age, in which the economy is shaped by technology — a significant departure from manufacturing-focused industrialism. With new innovation comes exciting promise, but also a unique set of challenges for today’s graduates.

There’s a new skillset today’s students need in order to succeed, and these have been dubbed “21st century skills.” Keep reading to learn more about why 21st century skills are so critical and what it means for higher education.

What are 21st century skills?

What specialized skills does one need to succeed in today’s information age? That’s the ideology behind the concept of 21st century skills. 21st century learning can be broken out into three main groups, each comprising different sets of competencies:

table with three types of skills

The 21st century skills movement caught on around the beginning of the millennium, when the National Education Association established the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) and developed a “Framework for 21st Century Learning.”

This framework outlined different skills deemed especially valuable and necessary to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce. Numerous states have since joined P21 through the years and have built these 21st century skills into their school districts’ curriculums.

21st century skills were specifically selected and deemed critical to modern workplaces. Advancements in technology have changed not only the type of work that’s done, but how it’s done. Because of this, the human element is growing more important than ever before.

This is especially true with emerging technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. With technology taking on more and more of the repetitive, task-based work, it means that humans are left to tackle more dynamic issues that require creativity, critical thinking and collaboration.

What do employers think of 21st century skills?

The term “soft skills” is slowly being replaced by “21st century skills.” Competencies like communication and collaboration have long been characterized as soft skills, and remain important through the evolution into 21st century skills. These are skills that employers are seeking in job candidates.

In fact, a majority of employers find these skills to be just as important as technical skills. In LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends Report, over 90 percent of surveyed employers reported that soft skills are just as or even more important to hire for than hard skills.

And in a recent survey of 400 employers, 85 percent reported wanting to hire individuals with a broad range of knowledge and skills, as compared to field-specific skills. These employers listed leadership, written communication, verbal communication, flexibility and teamwork as some of the most-desirable attributes in candidates.

Unfortunately, only 11 percent of business leaders agree that today’s college graduates have the skills needed for today’s dynamic workforce. On the other hand, 96 percent of college academic officers believe in their school’s ability to prepare students for the workforce.

As you can see, there’s a disconnect between academia and corporate America. So what can be done to connect the needs of employers with the qualifications of college graduates?

What role does higher education play in developing 21st century skills?

Some universities or particular programs naturally incorporate these kinds of transferable skills into their curriculum. Liberal arts programs, for example, are notorious for emphasizing soft skills like leadership, communication and teamwork. But 21st century skills aren’t only valuable for communications or philosophy majors.

Even the most technical fields – like computer science or accounting – are in need of professionals who can collaborate, adapt, think critically and take initiative. So how can schools equip students with these types of 21st century skills without overhauling their entire curriculum?

Several higher education institutions have acknowledged the need to better prepare students for the modern workforce using a more innovative approach. This includes new offerings, such as digital badges and micro-credentials, which help arm their graduates with the 21st century skills employers are seeking.

Digital badges can cover anything from blogging to time management or even initiative – competencies that until now have not been formally recognized on resumes or LinkedIn profiles.

Students earn digital badges in a similar manner to competency-based courses. A digital badge typically contains sub-competencies that are outlined within a rubric, and students must prove their proficiency in the specified skill in order to earn the badge. From there, they can add it to their LinkedIn account, website, portfolio or resume.

As many as one in five schools now offer some form of digital badges. And many of these offerings address the interpersonal, transferable-skill emphasis that aligns with the 21st century skillset.

Consider the following examples:

Prepare your graduates for the professional world

The workforce has evolved, and higher education must follow suit. Today’s graduates are entering a different type of workforce, so make sure you’re setting yours up for success.

Learn more about how some colleges are adapting to meet this need in our article, “What Are Micro-Credentials? How Colleges Are Adapting to the Modern Workforce.”