Photo by Beatrice Barbazzeni

21st Century Skills To Succeed in Industry 4.0: A Revised Education To Prepare Future Exponentials

Educators, administrators, parents, and employers must be aware and conscious about their primary role in educating students, so future generations get ready and prepared to face a world of exponential and disruptive changes.

Beatrice Barbazzeni
Beatrice Barbazzeni

“The only skill that will be important in the 21st century is the skill of learning new skills. Everything else will become obsolete over time.” - Peter Drucker

In the previous article series on leadership 4.0 and digital transformation, it has been discussed which effective leadership traits, styles, and qualities are needed to face Industry 4.0 while adapting to rapid changes characterized by digitalization and worldwide networks.

However, building digitally transformed leaders to properly face and respond to our century’s challenges requires a suitable and adequate type of education. Besides the latest metaverse  education, PixelMax and Credersi World, which proposed an immersive mixed virtual reality, virtual campus designed to innovate education, the need for developing, training, achieving, and mastering a new set of skills becomes a “must”.

In this article, we will explore which is this novel package of skills, called 21st-Century skills, but mostly why traditional education should be revised when preparing future professionals ready to enter Industry 4.0, and thus, managing digital technologies, and adapting to the rapid change in demand. In the first section, a brief overview of the 21st-Century skill and the reason why a revised education is needed is presented.

The second section will follow by giving a detailed definition of these skills. In the third section, the need for developing 21st-Century skills will be discussed concerning the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digital transformation. Lastly, in the last section, a few research studies are presented reinforcing the belief that training 21st-Century skill is of primary importance when interfacing a world characterized by exponential and disruptive changes.

21st Century Skills: The need for a revised education

“To reimagine education, teacher training requires a paradigm shift that goes beyond teaching students answers and instead of teaching them how to ask the right questions, evaluate information critically, and communicate effectively.”

Creativity is one of the keys to a successful career. Indeed, overcoming different challenges and obstacles, specific for each century, requires an effective problem-solving and critical thinking approach, while responding to the complexity of the world. This fact represents a “hot topic” when considering workplaces and education. However, educational systems are not yet ready to adapt to changes, failing to support the growth of new professionals characterized by a creative and successful mindset.

Whether compliance and conformity were the major skills needed to excel in industry and corporates over the last century, they are no more suitable to our century, although schools and educators still tend to prioritize them over creativity [1]. In this regard, the leader Yong Zhao writes in his book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?” that those students that aim to express themselves in other areas while discovering new talents are discouraged by current educational systems, instead of being rewarded for their attitude to curiosity, innovation, and creativity [1]. Besides, standardized curriculums and a one-size-fits teaching approach have the effect of disengaging students, negatively influencing their joy, and engagement when studying. Instead of learning through memorization and repetition of information, wouldn’t be more playful and effective learning through group games or by watching videos? Old methods do not promote a different way of thinking, remarking the fact that “knowing” information is more important than effectively “using” information. Indeed, this has nonsense in the context of a complex and dynamic changing world, in which “using” and applying the learnings is more valuable [1].

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and digital transformation [2], the development of advanced technologies from the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) systems, machine learning (ML), robotics, and much more, had the effect of influencing the way we interact with the environment, as well as, with other individuals in our private or work life. Two generations welcome this new century characterized by disruptive changes: Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2009) and Generation Alpha (born since 2010).  While the former can remember the use of technologies, smartphones, or tablets from their childhood and at school, the latter is even younger than smart mobile phones, they were born when social media, iPads, 3D movies, music streaming, and so on were already there since a few years [1]. Learning to manage and interface this abundance of information brought by the availability of technologies has shaped these new generations and their way of learning (“accessing information/learning whatever/whenever you need with just a click”). Nevertheless, Generation Z and Alpha are also the most internationally connected. They meet worldwide friends and they are more willing to travel or to study abroad, worthwhile when creating new experiences and forging personalities [1].

The result? 21st-century generations are smart, independent, flexible, willing to learn different skills in different situations. Moreover, they manage technologies easily, they are culturally open to connecting globally. Thus, a focus on shifting toward a novel and revised educational approach would be needed to boost and encourage the capabilities of future generations.

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What 21st Century Skills are?

“The best way to predict the future is to create it”. (Peter Drucker)

21st-century skills are transferable soft skills that can be extended in different settings and help support the learning of technologies. Indeed, the rapid and constant evolution of technologies requires the adoption of new skills, changing the way of working and how to interface with them. Thus, 21st-century skills give that “flexibility” needed to quickly learn and adapt to changes. And being transferable skills means that anyone can apply them wherever is suitable, independently of which technology is on-trend in the market [3].

Educators, school reformers, academics, and governmental agencies tried to identify and group these skills to prepare, educate, and train future professionals. Indeed, 21st-century skills are crucial when succeeding in the current society [3].  Among these, three main groups were identified:

  1. Learning skills (the four’s C): teaches those processes needed to elaborate and communicate information, while adapting and facing the nowadays work environments. The four’s C includes creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.
  2. Literacy skills (IMT): helps students to select carefully informations, differentiating what is trustworthy from what is not reliable, as well as, understanding the impact that technologies have on shared informations. Hence, it aims to develop attentive thinkers and researchers of information. The IMT includes information literacy, media literacy, technology literacy (process, evaluate, select source information, particularly on the web)
  3. Life skills (FLIPS): focus on daily life, while combining personal and professional life. These skills are essential when developing and evolving an individual, able to move in personal and workspaces with integrity. Hence, life skills refer to adaptability, leadership, initiative, efficiency, and social skills.

Learning skills (the four’s C)

Grouped as the four’s C, these skills are mostly implemented in health science and business economics, however, they are focused on elaborating, analyzing, understanding, and communicating information.

Critical thinking is the ability to find innovative solutions to a problem, analyze information with logical, clear, and reasoned conclusions. Like any other skill, critical thinking needs the practice to be evolved into a forward-looking, problem-solving mindset.

Communication is the ability to deeply understand things and to share them with others. Improving effective communication is useful, being a versatile skill ables us to influence any aspect of our life.  

Collaboration is related to teamwork and it is already known that the majority of work can be done when the team is cohesive and where there is mutual support. Indeed, active listening, participation, and proactive behavior toward achieving goals that are shared by the group represent valuable skills in the modern workforce. Sometimes, being part of a team does not mean you have to be good at performing any task, but willing to collaborate with your colleagues more effectively.

Creativity represents innovation and is strictly related to the concept of adaptability. Hence, any organization, small corporate, or business activity that can to adapt to changes, while bringing in “something different” is the key to success [4].

Literacy skills (IMT)

Often called ITM skills, they refer to the understanding of digital transformation.

Whether you are a student, an employee, or a businessman information literacy is the ability to understand facts, figures, statistics, and raw data based on an online search. Separating facts from fiction is important when navigating on the web, across the abundance of information. Media literacy, built on the acquisition of information literacy, represents the identification of methods, sources, and structures published online, distinguishing what is valuable and credible information from what is not. Technology literacy relates to the ability of understanding concepts such as computers, cloud programming, mobile devices, and how they work while feeling confident about their usage [4].

Life skills (FLIPS)

Regardless of the circumstances, FLIPS skills may be useful to close the gap between your personal and work life.

Flexibility is simply the ability to adapt to changes while responding to any situation. It helps individuals to modify their viewpoint and when needed being more humble by admitting to being wrong. Developing and reinforcing this skill in students is extremely important toward achieving long-term goals, and career success.

Leadership is the capability to set clear goals and to guide a team toward their achievements, where supporting collaboration is also the key. Obtaining a new work position, entering into a new company, facing 21st-century challenges require responsible leaders able to manage, plan, and direct activities encouraging the team to actively contribute to the realization of a company’s purpose. Training this skill is extremely important in education, to prepare future, effective leaders.

Initiative refers to the ability to be “self-starters” and it usually comes naturally although one of the most difficult to be learned. Working on multiple projects outside the regular working time requires practice and perseverance. Moreover, it refers to the character and attitude of a person in terms of work ethic and professionality, the initiative can find an optimal match with leadership and flexibility. Rewarding initiative skills in students can be useful to further reinforce them.

Productivity or “efficiency” is a relevant skill in our current century. Indeed, in any business activity, the goal is always to “get more done in less time.” Going in parallel with the above-mentioned life-skills, teaching strategies to manage productivity and so, efficiency, should be considered when educating students at recognizing their best way to work and also how the others work (collaborations).

Lastly, social skills are linked to the ability of networking and it represents the core of a successful professional. Connecting and interacting with others, forging true and loyal long-lasting relationships is the result of self-awareness, empathy, and self-regulation. Evolving and strengthening social skills acquire even more value when thinking about digital communication, especially in younger generations, and where building worth human connections can be harder. Educating students in developing self-awareness, empathy, and also self-regulation will help them face their professional careers and workplaces. Asking for feedback about behaviors, learning to control emotions and stress, or even becoming a better listener for colleagues/clients will translate into robust, trusted, and authentic relationships [4].

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Empowering the 21st Century skills

Training and preparing 21st-century, transferable skills are of primary importance when succeeding in a constant worldwide changing market characterized by higher customer demands, expectations, advanced digital and technical knowledge, and in which disruption is influencing any industry sector, business, way to work, and models. Learning to accept, act, react, and adapt to these exponential changes would be needed when facing this century made of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Educating today who will be future professionals tomorrow is the key to transforming the world into a better place, responding to its continuous evolving processes. However, to generate a massive and positive impact, it is also important to properly identify who should teach these skills and at which age of education [4]. Besides, structuring an entrepreneurial mindset should also be supported in early education, where critical thinking and problem-solving are crucial skills to empower, as well as, emotional intelligence (EI) represents the most important aspect to consider behind a successful outcome, both at work and in any relationship. Teaching through technologies, and digitalized learning can also be a new strategy to promote and welcome the adoption of technologies in our daily and work life.

Moreover, when technologies become the tool to internationally connect and build human relationships, schools should also grow and educate students as global citizens, promoting internationalization and integration across cultures. Traditional schools would then evolve into international environments, supporting travel opportunities, exchange programs, online learning, or international collaborations between institutions [1].

Teachers should also transform into forward-thinking mentors and support students in their learning process while empowering self-confidence and curiosity for exploring different fields. With different learning and teaching approach, more flexible, curious, futuristic, collaborative, creative, and digital will help develop a growth mindset. Think differently to generate innovation.

The empowerment of 21st-century skills educates and prepares young generations with proper instruments to face present and future challenges. Thus, 21st-century education characterized by critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, digital technologies, social skills, leadership, flexibility, and adaptability will translate into a successful career as well as healthier living conditions [1].

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21st Century Skills to succeed in Industry 4.0 and Digital Transformation

“The world is changing faster than ever before.”

If learning, teaching, and education will be mostly digital and online, how this will translate to industries and any other workplace? What would be the effect of this innovative educational method? [5].

It may be predictable that the future of education and learning will be remotely supported by advanced technologies such as augmented reality (AR), virtual  reality (VR), and 5G transforming how traditional education is delivered while democratizing this resource. Focusing on an interdisciplinary approach as well as about what to teach instead of how can generate a great impact. Hence, a revised education aims to properly prepare individuals and future professionals to become worldwide citizens of a global knowledgeable society, appreciate and merge with different cultures, and propel toward a healthier life. A type of education that is work-related goals will generate 4IR students that are e future-ready for any job and career path.

Indeed, thinking about the future of work, the concept of a novel education should evolve in parallel. Hence a few thoughts might be considered: (i) disrupting industries, jobs will also be rapidly disrupted, (ii) already existing jobs will radically change or disappear to leave space for new 4IR jobs, (iii) the nowadays education, certifications, training programs will become obsolete in a few years because not anymore responding to future market needs and challenges, (iv) any organization, community, and individual need to be prepared for a globally changing market and economical world [5].

Responding to a constantly changing world means that even a type of education that is delivered on a digital platform may become rapidly outdated. Thus, learning to unlearn obsolete information will be necessary. Disrupting education is the key not just to a better education but mostly adequate to shift the focus on empowering students and individuals to be responsible about their learnings, methods, and career strategies, through flexibility and adaptability, catching the 4IR world opportunities. Teachers, educators, school reformers should structure a new way of learning by strengthening new approaches based on interdisciplinary learning, 21st-century skills, metacognition, coaching, incubator, and design thinking models [5].

From knowledge to skills, from specific disciplines to “learning-how-to-learn” and “doing-to-learn”. With a similar approach, innovative education will disrupt the traditional system and current learning organizations. Indeed, the shift to a novel approach able to satisfy the future 4IR requirements needs cross-disciplinary learning, and moving to an online platform would leverage the potential of learning while facilitating teaching at any time and from anywhere [5]. Strengthening 21st-century skills, besides leadership and team skills - even through virtual meetings, would allow the highlight of metacognition.  Indeed, developing self-awareness of what we do and why we do it, as well as, human interactions, make individuals more conscious about themselves, their behaviors, the effect that it has on others, and social patterns. Metacognition supports the process of “learning how to learn”, both in students and educators to enrich and ameliorate learning methods and effective strategies. Zoom in and out will then help to measure progress insightfully [5].

Old education structures are usually hierarchically organized with fixed schedules, courses, and activities. However, a more personalized, “open-ended-learner-centered” approach is not yet supported. In this regard, coaching would represent the solution focused on a one-to-one session approach in which the schedule is adapted based on the learner’s needs, in which the goal of this coaching session is to put into practice learnings and goals in “real-world projects.” Coaching is similar to what is called “tutoring” today. Deliver online individual coaching sessions would be even more comfortable than in-person meetings [5].

Incubator programs are aimed to educate and support entrepreneurs with outstanding, innovative ideas in which the content of the programs is focused on exploiting the vision of the startup. It primarily values an interactive approach (e.g., design thinking), and where the outcome is not to “get certified” but to apply the learning and to put that vision into practice. Mostly a design-thinking methodology is adopted to design, develop an innovative product/service/process from the idea phase, experimentation, to the prototype realization phase, testing the market and finding the optimal fit solution to a real-world problem [5].  

From 21st-century skills to work readiness in Industry 4.0: perspectives from American industries

“We must prepare our students for jobs that do not even exist yet.”

In response to the high unemployment rate observed in Indonesia, a recent study [6] was aimed to investigate the effect of 21st-century skills on the work readiness of students from Vocational High Schools (SMK). Over a large dataset, to acquire data the study was carried out based on multiple regression analysis and a questionnaire. In particular, the multiple regression analysis explored the relationship between several variables such as life and career skills, learning and innovation skills, information, media, and technology skills with readiness work in Industry 4.0.

Moreover, work readiness was also measured by a few factors such as physical, mental, and emotional conditions, motives and goals, skills, and knowledge. Results showed that all the variables (life and career skills, learning and innovation skills, information, media, and technology skills) had a simultaneous significant effect on work readiness. Thus, to become successful graduates in any workplace, reinforcing 21st-century skills would be recommended.

In fact, in line with the study of  Wijaya (2016) [7], which identified life and career skills relevant when entering business activities and industries. Companies ask novel graduates to be flexible and adaptable while responding to rapid changes brought by the 4IR with stimulating ideas and innovative ways to solve problems. Moreover, similar to what has been found by Kurniawan (2019) [8], learning and innovation skills are significant on work readiness while entering Industry 4.0, so developing 21st-century skills are needed in educating vocational students. From the analysis, information, media, and technology skills were found also impactful on work readiness. Similarly, the study of Yahya (2018) [9] found that Industry 4.0 asks workers to learn new skills, and one of these was technology literacy that played an effective role in facing the challenges of a digitally transformed world. Lastly, results from the questionnaire demonstrated that students of this century were able to master technology and manage, organize information accordingly.

Life, career skills, information, media, and technology skills, as well as, learning and innovation skills showed their significant effect on work readiness in Industry 4.0, especially when these skills are combined. Thus, encouraging 21st-century skills in vocational students would be effective to prepare future graduates to enter the world of exponential industries. Moreover, communication and interpersonal skills should also be evaluated, essential when building trusted relationships, networks, and connections with customers, collaborators, and employees; the key to a successful business and career.

Whether educating students is the result of a prosperous business, preparing teachers, educators, policymakers, employers, parents, and the overall public community and society are what nations and governments should also consider. To this, the study of Bruett (2006) [10] aimed to change how education is delivered in American schools to improve students’ achievements. Dell, being a big American corporate and provider of technologies for schools, aimed to ensure and support young students in their career path, educating them when facing adulthood challenges. A few skills are needed to be acquired before ending school and based on the help of technologies, Dell aims to sustain schools in achieving and meeting their educational and learning goals while supporting and encouraging students through the learning of 21st-century skills.

Member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Dell, and the partnership defined a novel framework in which these innovative skills were listed. Among these are analytical thinking, communication, collaboration, global awareness, and technological and economic literacy toward the establishment of a novel curriculum, for professional and educational development for teachers, and classrooms. These programs are already active in Virginia and in Texas, where technologies and used to support students learning more effectively. A hint for stakeholders to participate in this program contributes to preparing young generations when interfacing with the global economy. Hence, educators, administrators, parents, and employers must be aware and conscious about their primary role in educating students, so future generations get ready and prepared to face a world of exponential and disruptive changes [10].

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“The illiterate of the 21st-century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. (Alvin Toffler)

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash


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Beatrice Barbazzeni

Beatrice is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience aimed to achieve her MTP with discipline, perseverance and grit:“empower inner potential leading to the growth of exponential winners".