Defining Skills for the 21st Century Workforce

Today's workplace requires a higher degree of literacy across the board.

When describing key skill sets desired for new workers, industries tend to focus on general abilities that are challenging to translate into concrete educational curricula or training programs. Conversely, lists of skills that are specific to a given machine or procedure may be quickly outmoded as new equipment is developed, or not translate easily across industries.

Overall, today's workplace requires a higher degree of literacy across the board. However, what constitutes an acceptable level of literacy has changed significantly. There have been a number of efforts intended to define the essential skill sets needed in the 21st century, including the U.S. Department of Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (1991), the International Society for Technology in Education's National Educational Technology Standards for Students (2000), the American Association of School Librarians' Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning (1998), the International Technology Education Association's Standards for Technological Literacy (2000), and the National Academy of Engineering's Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More about Technology (2002). The most comprehensive of these is the metastudy enGauge 21st Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age, by the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory and the Metiri Group (2003). EnGauge breaks down the various skill sets into four principal clusters:

  • Digital-Age Literacy
  • Inventive Thinking
  • Effective Communication
  • High Productivity

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