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The 21st century job (21st century skills)

The “organization man” is long gone. For one thing, the organization that created him has disappeared. In large corporations especially, the traditional top-down hierarchy has shifted to a flatter organizational structure. Less supervision, more autonomy, more collaboration, and less predictability mean that today’s students will need to be independent problem-solvers in order to succeed at their jobs.

In 1973, economists warned that too many people worked in narrow, routine, repetitive jobs. But the massive technological change, globalization, and automation that has occurred since then has led American companies to radically restructure how jobs are defined and the way work is done.

According to The New American Workplace, a 2006 book by James O’Toole and Edward Lawler, the number of companies producing material goods and services has shrunk to 38% of the gross domestic product. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. wealth is now generated by the information-service sector of the economy.

“In plain English,” O’Toole and Lawler write, “today more large American companies can make more money selling knowledge than they can by making and selling things.”

In a “global knowledge economy,” these companies realize, human capital is their most important resource. As a result, jobs—especially those in globally competitive firms—are  changing in four key ways:

1. Less hierarchy and supervision. It used to be you reported to work and supervisors told you what to do. But corporate restructuring in the 1990s eliminated many layers of management. Now fewer supervisors oversee more people, and lateral relationships have replaced many hierarchical ones.

2. More autonomy and responsibility. With fewer supervisors over them, employees are expected to take more responsibility for their own work. In 2002, more than half of American workers (55 percent) said it was basically their responsibility to see that their job gets done, up from 32 percent just five years earlier. 

3. More collaboration. Hand-in-hand with reduced hierarchy and supervision has come a significant increase in “horizontal” collaboration—time in which employees from different parts of an organization work together on specific projects. And thanks to technology, these teams of employees can include employees, consultants, and contractors from across town, across the country, or overseas.

4. Less predictability and stability. Not surprisingly, these changes mean that the traditional concept of “job” is disappearing. Flexible work assignments and less dependence on formal and static job descriptions mean that the tasks you perform one day may be very different from the tasks you perform the next. At the same time, employees are increasingly responsible for developing skills themselves, because companies provide much less workplace training, instead hiring the talent needed for a particular job, project, or task.

As the CEO of UPS described it in 2005, “We look for [employees] who can learn how to learn.” In order to fit that description, students will need to come out of school with these skills:

  • The ability to act independently and solve problems on their own
  • Strong interpersonal written, oral, and social skills to collaborate with colleagues
  • Strong global literacy to understand people around the world
  • The ability to acquire the information they need to do the job
  • The ability to learn new skills as corporations change strategies to stay competitive.

For more, see Workplace change in the full report, Defining a 21st century education .

This summary was based on a work by Craig D. Jerald. Craig D. Jerald is president of Break the Curve Consulting, specializing in education policy, communications, research, and practice. Previously, Craig was a Principal Partner at the Education Trust, where he worked on issues related to teacher quality, accountability, federal education policy, and the practices of high-performing schools and districts. Craig was also a Senior Editor at Education Week, where he founded and managed the organization’s research division and helped create Ed Week’s special annual reports series, Quality Counts and Technology Counts.

Posted: September 21, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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