Search form

Tomorrow’s Workforce: What Students Need

Young people in school today will be joining the workforce tomorrow. But are they being prepared for success in the 21st-century work environment? Education World asked experts to weigh in and identify the most important skills that students will need.

Here’s what we learned.

Missing Links

When asked if students are missing skills for the workforce, we heard a resounding ‘yes.’ Students today learn academic core subjects, which are useful. But they aren’t gaining all the knowledge they need to seamlessly integrate into the office environment.

For instance, not all students have the right computer skills. “As technology has become pervasive in the classroom and the workplace, solid technology skills are essential for every student. Teaching digital literacy skills ultimately falls upon educators. Schools need to go beyond the ‘three R’s’ to improve college and career readiness with technical skills,” said Ray Kelly, CEO, Certiport (, a certification testing company.

Beyond that, students need to be ready to meet specific employer needs. “Too often, high school students do not demonstrate workplace habits that employers prioritize, including reliability, punctuality, customer service and high-quality task completion,” said Andrew Rothstein, Chief Academic Officer of the National Academy Foundation ( “There are also frequent issues with written and presentation skills that are appropriate in a business context. Teamwork and problem solving are the new constants.”

Indeed, teamwork is a very important—and often absent—skill among students entering the workforce. “Students need to learn how to work well with others—cooperative learning, working in groups.  Students need to be able to think out of the box and be creative. They need to find different ways to offer solutions,” said Marilyn Curtain-Phillips, a high school math teacher and college professor.

STEM Knowledge

Fortunately, STEM (that’s short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) instruction offers some of the keys that will allow students to unlock workplace success.

“Clearly, technology, science, engineering and mathematics are and will be the drivers of innovation. Innovation is vital to the country’s economic growth and will be getting major investments from employers and the government. For students preparing for jobs and careers, employability and earnings will be increasingly tied to STEM knowledge, including the ability to adapt as the pace of discovery accelerates,” said Rothstein.

Kelly added that students need familiarity with common applications such as Microsoft Office, as well as Web literacy skills, to succeed in modern jobs.

Life Skills

Key to succeeding in the workplace is the ability to keep personal matters in order. Students need to be able to manage their lives and function as responsible members of society. In particular, managing finances is a must. “I think that many students are missing consumer mathematics skills, such as balancing a checkbook, filling out a tax return, budgeting, etc.,” said Curtain-Phillips.

Dealing With Failure

Modern culture has taken a “can’t-fail” approach to education and raising children. In a misguided attempt to increase kids’ confidence, some parents go so far as letting their kids always win at board games. But that doesn’t help them in the real world, experts say.

“In the global knowledge economy, failure is an accepted part of doing business. Think about ideas and products that changed the world – the pathways to these successes are strewn with failures. Each failure offered a priceless opportunity for learning,” said Karen Collias, an educational consultant. “Kids today are afraid to fail. This fear saps their creativity and robs them of experiencing the true joy of learning and doing. In the 21st Century, learning by simply being told (declarative knowledge) is no longer sufficient. Our students need to apply what they know to new situations (procedural knowledge).”

Effective Communication

Finally, students need to be able to effectively communicate with their peers via modern methods. Email is often used in business communications, and work emails are held to a much higher standard than the Facebook updates and text messaging kids are already doing.

“An email documents ideas, relationships and process, so it is crucial to have the writing skills for clear, concise and appropriate communication. Also, because more and more work is done in teams made up of people from throughout the world—face-to-face and virtual—culturally sensitive communication reflecting global awareness takes on a greater importance than ever before,” said Collias.

Related resources

Five Ways to Better Prepare Students for Careers
Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century
What Is That Thing? A Lesson on Group Dynamics
Partnership for 21st Century Skills
Seminar Instructional Style Builds 21st Century Skills  New content for teachers
and administrators every weekday.


Article by Sarah W. Caron, EducationWorld Social Media Editor
Education World®                      
Copyright © 2011 Education World