For as long as I can remember, skills that students need for the future were at the center of the discussion in both K12 and higher education. Year in and year out, the lists of essential skills included emotional intelligence, growth mindset, flexibility, and self-organization. Indeed, the future is too often unpredictable. What else can prepare you for the unknown better than your ability to adapt and learn on the fly?
If anything, the past year has shown that these were precisely the skills that allowed students who possessed them to adjust better to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Now educators think about what they can do to equip more students with these essential soft competencies and give all young people a chance to thrive in the volatile and complex environment.
Businesses have responded to the unforeseen shifts and lingering uncertainty by rethinking their priorities and expectations for the new employees. As a survey conducted by EdWeek has shown, soft skills lead the way. EdWeek's researchers have focused on the skills that the leaders of health care, technology, hospitality, and some other industries believe to be crucial in their new hires. Here are the top eight that they mentioned most often.
1. Cognitive flexibility and resilience
Resilience and flexibility popped up most often. Almost every interviewee put them on top of the list, which is understandable. The global situation in business remains ambiguous. The ability to bounce back from adversity, cope, and adapt may mean a difference between success and failure.
Dr. Stuart Lustig, senior medical director at Cigna, stresses that the ability to recover from challenges is crucial for physical health and emotional wellbeing. Sadly, it deteriorates with age. While children are very resilient, levels of resilience drop by 50 percent by the age of 18-23. Moreover, Gen Z shows particularly low levels of resilience. This is alarming in itself, but given the unpredictable situation in the world, educators must address this issue to arm young people for success.
2. Teamwork and communication
Teamwork consistently tops the lists of soft skills that employees must have. However, the pandemic made businesses migrate online. As a result, remote collaboration presented its unique challenges. For example, unlike face-to-face interaction, digital platforms hindered reading important nonverbal cues, and understanding between colleagues suffered as a result.
Lottie Holland, diversity, inclusion, and engagement director at Stellantis, believes that students need to focus on presentation skills and effective writing. This will enable them to communicate with their teammates effectively through digital platforms.
3. Emotional intelligence and empathy
Logically following teamwork is empathy – a skill that is fundamental for collaboration. Angela Celestin from CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield believes that "Practicing empathy is the first step to unlocking the value of each other's diversity." This skill is traditionally in high demand in health care and hospitality. However, leaders in other industries came to appreciate it lately.
4. Self-learning and self-regulation
Michael Fischer, vice president of global talent management at Sysco, names "learn to learn" ability as the key competency that will allow individuals and companies to stay competitive in the changing world. Moreover, he believes that students must learn to do it proactively. They should "identify and anticipate changes in the environment and… acquire new knowledge and skills that will be needed and effective in this environment."
5. Tech prowess and coding
Tech skills were a must for a couple of decades now, but employers today mean something more than the ability to set up a Zoom conference. Digital fluency, the ability to manage multiple collaboration tools, and master new ones on the go are now essential.
Some employers go even further and proclaim coding a new literacy. According to Susan Prescott, a top executive from Apple, coding is a "foundational skill that embodies creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving – all important proficiencies to bring into the workplace."
This all-time favorite shows growing relevance, as it is crucial for navigating complex and ambiguous situations. Mark Sparvell from Microsoft names critical thinking as the most essential skill, closely followed by innovation and creativity. He highlights that the concept of "skills for the future," even as vague as it was before 2020, is now completely overturned. Nothing is set in stone anymore, and students must prepare for the unknown ahead. This means honing their critical thinking, first and foremost.
Ed Bastian, CEO at Delta, probably is the only one who kept strategic thinking on his list of skills students will need – and for a reason. Although thinking ahead becomes even more complicated with so many variables, one still needs this ability to grow businesses and plan for success in the increasingly connected world. Adaptability is great, but without strategic thinking and goal-setting, you will bound to go with the flow – and this is not how successful businesses are built.
Self-awareness and personal wellbeing
Kelly Williams from Blue Cross Blue Shield insists that self-awareness and equanimity should be taught in school, as they are the basis for every other ability on this list. "At the heart of it, it's about being versus doing," she said. "Being grounded. Being centered. Regardless of what's happening."
I cannot agree more with her words. I remember how my anxiety over whether I will have enough time to write my paper for school overshadowed the joy that learning was supposed to be. Caring for your mental health and enjoying the wonder of discovery instead of stressing out should become a mandatory subject. It would help children and young people in schools and colleges all over the country. I am sure that resilience, empathy, and the rest will naturally follow.