The Power Skills in An Age of Disruption

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“Almost 43 percent of the global youth labor force is either unemployed or working, yet living in poverty,” according to Global Employment Trends for Youth 2015 by the International Labour Organization. In countries with mature economies, nearly one in five students don’t acquire a minimum level of basic skills needed to be gainfully employed.
 
A striking trend juxtaposes the un- and underemployed young people around the world. According to PwC’s 18th Annual Global CEO Survey of 1300 leaders, CEOs now find it so difficult to identify people with the skills to grow their business that 75 percent rank the skills shortage as the number one threat to their success. Forty percent of global employers report a talent shortage in their organization, according to the Manpower Group. This is the highest rate in ten years.
 
Why This Paradox?
 
According to the CEOs surveyed by PwC, technological advancement is the most disruptive megatrend affecting their business. It is not only profoundly affecting the way organizations are structured and run—it’s changing the skillsets that are needed.
 
The breakneck pace of change seems like the natural course of life, making it easy to overlook how quickly technology altered the fabric of culture, the way we communicate, and how organizations operate. Just two decades ago, landline telephones, in-person meetings, and the post office were the predominant modes of communication. Today, disruption has emerged as the new normal, with digital and mobile technology, video conferencing, and the recent advent of virtual and augmented reality technologies relentlessly shifting the terrain.
 
In this age of rapid change and unpredictability, many leaders are seeking an agile workforce with the competencies to navigate and lead in an environment of perpetual disruption.
The Essential Competencies
 
“Companies are looking for candidates predisposed to what are now referred to as ‘power’ skills—such as resiliency, adaptability, flexibility, a tolerance for ambiguity, and innate intellectual curiosity,” said Kirsten Brecht Baker, chief executive of search firm Global Professional Search, in a recent talk, Global Competencies for the 21st Century Workplace at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
 
In their survey of 50+ business leaders, What Are Essential Competencies on the Job?, the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board (CED) uncovered an interesting finding. What Baker would call the power skills—critical thinking, problem solving, communications, and the ability to work on teams and with individuals of diverse backgrounds—were ranked far more essential by these leaders than hard skills such as media literacy, quantitative ability, and STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills. Critical thinking and problem solving in particular are essential competencies, yet difficult to find in job candidates.
 
How to Grow the Power Skills
 
What kind of changes can we put into place now—the easy wins and the more systemic variety—to cultivate power skills for a generation of young people entering the workforce?  The Global Engagement Forum Live on April 4 – 5 in Washington D.C., will look at this very question, bringing together a cross-section of leaders from corporations, government, and civil society to collaborate on solving this fundamental issue. In preparation, key themes have emerged, which provide insight for action:
 
1. Mentor Young People
 
Young people move through a series of critical inflection points that will influence their mindset and the trajectory of their lives. Having a consistent, strong older figure in his or her life who serves as a role model provides that young person with a vision for what is possible in their own lives. It provides a social safety net that can often catch him or her in the moments when they are at risk of falling through.
 
Organizations like Thread are inventing new mentorship models designed for today’s youth and volunteers. A group of volunteers makes a long-term commitment to one young at-risk teenager and serves as that individual’s support system. Over the course of many years, this core volunteer team is an active presence in the young person’s life.
 
2. Seek Out Public-Private Partnerships to Develop the Skills Employers Want
 
IBM, one of the world’s largest technology firms, understands that its ability to grow must involve innovative ways to tackle the skills gap. IBM partners with governments, academic institutions, and business leaders around the world to create a new model of public education that IBM designed to address not only the company’s own talent demands, but also the societal challenge of the global skills crisis.
 
This is accomplished through P-TECH, a six-year public high school that combines rigorous academics with the skills needed to successfully take on 21st century jobs. Students not only graduate with high school diplomas, but also with their associate degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math fields, and successful candidates are first in line for available jobs at IBM or one of its hundreds of partner corporations.
 
“In Crown Heights, Brooklyn,” points out Stanley Litow, President of the IBM Foundation and Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs at IBM, “nearly 35 percent of students from the first P-TECH class are completing their ‘six-year’ program in five years or less, moving directly into good jobs, four-year college degree programs, or both. With these kinds of results, it’s not far-fetched to envision skilled and motivated P-TECH graduates playing essential roles in America’s next
 
3. Embrace Competency-Based Education 
 
Competency-based education (CBE) is an approach to education in which students earn credits based on demonstrating mastery of certain skills, or competencies. Sixty percent of the leaders mentioned earlier in CED’s survey would be somewhat or very interested in hiring students from the CBE program.
 
According to Monica Herk, Vice President of Education Research at CED, “this method of recognizing educational achievements differs from the traditional credit-hour system where students advance by earning credits based on time spent in class. In competency-based education, students advance at their own pace and earn credit based on demonstrated learning, rather than time spent.
 
Through CBE programs, students can receive an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree, or they can receive recognition for mastering specific competencies that potential employers seek, independent of degree completion.”
 
4. Cultivate Power Skills through an Existing Curriculum
 
Starting a big project takes a lot of effort. The Northeast Resiliency Consortium, a group of seven colleges, found a different way to instill power skills among college students. They kept the barriers to change low. The Consortium developed the Resiliency Consortium Model v 2.0, a model that identifies five competencies—critical thinking, adaptability, self-awareness, reflective learning, and collaboration—as fundamental to building resiliency in students.
 
Rather than introducing new programs, the Consortium built the development of these competencies into twenty-five existing curricula throughout the seven colleges. The schools saw markedly higher course retention rates than courses that were not resiliency-enhanced.
 
5. Make Higher Education More Accessible
 
College is a prerequisite for many jobs today and the ones that will be created in the future. Since 1995, however, public and private universities have become increasingly expensive and out of reach for many communities, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
 
Learning is rewarding, but it’s not always easy. Without a real-world pay-off, a student whose family cannot afford higher education can easily lose the will and enthusiasm to put forth the effort early in their lives.
 
Governor Andrew Cuomo recently introduced the Excelsior Scholarship in New York State, a free college tuition system. This new program has yet to be implemented and requires political leaders with the vision to see this through. Yet, the potential of this concept is huge—not just for those who gain access to education in the present, but also for the generations of young people who will gain a vision for their future.
 
In an age of perpetual disruption, individuals no longer need to know simply how to do something. They need the power skills to navigate the rapid-fire change of today’s business and political landscape to help shape the world of tomorrow.
The results are powerful. Ninety-one percent of students who have been in Thread for five years have graduated high school, and nearly the same number have been accepted to college. Eighty-six percent have completed a two- or four-year degree or certificate program.
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