Developing 21st Century Competencies

Developing 21st Century Competencies

Developing 21st Century Competencies is gaining popularity around the globe as these competencies are believed to prepare Young Adults for postsecondary education (college readiness) and the modern workplace (career readiness).

Ensuring that the next generation develops a comprehensive set of 21st Century Competencies is a pressing international concern.  In this regard, a significant body of literature already exists internationally as extensive research has been done in the USA, Europe, Australia and Asia over the past decade on identifying those specific soft skills competencies required for meeting 21st century challenges.  

There are literally hundreds of educational institutions and organizations who have adopted the 21st Century Competency learning approach, either formally or informally, to guide their learning communities and many are embedding 21st Century Competencies in school curriculum and professional development programs.

Research conducted by Harvard University, the Carnegie Foundation and Stanford Research Centre has concluded that 85% of job success comes from having well-developed people (soft) skills, and only 15% of job success comes from technical skills and knowledge (hard skills).

In South Africa a completed secondary school or tertiary qualification is not a guarantee to secure immediate employment.  Many young adults lack the basic work readiness competencies (employability) such as communication, personal presentation, interviewing skills and general work behaviour (Carol Paton, Financial Mail, March 2010).

What are 21st Century Competencies?

In literature and research 21st Century Competencies are referred to as employability skills, career/college readiness skills, professional competencies, interdisciplinary competencies, transferable skills, non-cognitive skills, and/or soft skills.  

While many proposed definitions of 21st Century Competencies exist, the following are three most popular models that can serve to illustrate the concept:

Although they differ somewhat in their definition and prioritization, most competency models generally include the following:

  • Thinking competencies:  critical and creative thinking, problem solving and decision-making
  • People competencies: communication, collaboration, leadership, global- and cross-cultural awareness
  • Personal competencies: self-management, personal responsibility and learning how to learn

Through research and a meta-analysis of a variety of international competency models and frameworks, we have selected seven vital 21st Century Competencies to enhance young adult employability and career readiness in the modern workplace.


In today’s competitive global employment market your personal brand is the key to securing and maintaining employment. Demonstrating professional work habits, e.g. good self-presentation, a positive attitude, timeliness, productivity, initiative and follow-through is key to personal success.  Pursuing every learning opportunity and understanding how to self-advocate is a necessity.  Taking self-responsibility for your own behaviour, actions and decisions is will give you a competitive edge.


Responsible communication practices are essential in the modern digital world. Whether interaction is face-to-face, online or through using technology your personal brand is defined by the quality of your relationships, interactions and communication with others.  Articulating thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in various forms and to a variety of target audiences requires advanced communication competencies. Building mutually beneficial relationships with colleagues and customers from diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, religions, lifestyles, and with varying opinions. You must be able to assess and manage your emotions and those of others; use empathetic skills to guide and motivate others and organize, prioritize, and delegate work effectively.


Today business partners halfway across the world can meet and work together daily thanks to technology. The global modern workplace enables endless opportunities for collaboration, from crowdsourcing and collaborative editing to social media networking. Developing collaborative strategies is therefore essential for effective performance in the modern workplace.  Working effectively in a team requires a thorough understanding of team interaction and the ability to leverage the strengths of others to achieve common goals.


Employers require creative solutions and a competitive edge through the design and implementation of novel products and services.  Therefore an entrepreneurial mindset is critical, even for those not starting a business. We also live and work in an environment of rapid change, and those who can best adapt and take advantage of opportunities will thrive.

Critical thinking

The future workforce will be confronted with complex problems we can’t even conceive today. Success in the 21st Century will depend on your ability to reason critically, think systematically, make decisions and devise unique solutions to complex real-world problems.  


Citizenship in the workplace requires an understanding of the rights and responsibilities of living, learning and working in an interconnected world.  Employers want well-rounded and responsible global citizens who can operate on a global scale towards creating a better world for everyone.  Being able to value, respect, and learn from diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and religions is essential.  You must be able to demonstrate openness, inclusiveness, interpersonal sensitivity and respect towards others in a variety of circumstances.


The abundance of information and rapidly changing technology tools require digital knowhow.  You need to leverage existing digital technologies safely, legally, ethically and efficiently to solve problems, complete tasks, and accomplish goals. The impact of your digital communication and decisions also have a direct impact on your personal and professional life.  You need to understand the impact of your digital footprint and you need to be in control of that footprint.  

The ability to navigate the complex life and work environments in a globally competitive information age requires young adults to pay rigorous attention to developing adequate life- and career competencies.  Our Career Readiness Masterclass Workshop Series aims to equip young adults with these competencies.

Carin van Rensburg is an Industrial / Organisational Psychologist (IOP) with a special interest in equipping Young Adults, Individuals and Small to Medium businesses with 21st Century Competencies through Career Development Workshops and Coaching.

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