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The New Global Skill Set

Just as businesses are now collaborating and competing around the world, so are education systems. The nations who best prepare their youth for the global knowledge economy will fare the best in the 21st century. I've asked my colleague Heather Singmaster, senior program associate at Asia Society, to contribute a three-part series on global skills, and how nations are transforming their education systems to teach them.

by Heather Singmaster

The nature of work is changing. Many graduates will be working in 24/7 global production teams. As more routine jobs can be done by computer or outsourced, the advantage will go to workers who can analyze and solve problems, recognize patterns and similarities, and communicate and interact with other people, especially those who do not share the worker's culture. One poignant example is the fact that in 2011, Apple, a digital company based on creativity and innovation, overtook ExxonMobil as the most valuable company in the world. Its cash holdings also surpassed that of the U.S. Treasury.

The prevailing thought is there is a lack of jobs right now. Yet, ManpowerGroup's annual 2011 Talent Shortage Survey shows that about 52 percent of U.S. employers reported difficulty filling jobs. This is nearly a four-fold increase from the previous year. These employers, including those in the United States, cited a lack of experience and workplace skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and agility that are critical to generate productivity and innovation. And these aren't just management jobs; everyone from sales people to administrative assistants are now required to have problem solving and critical thinking skills.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of reading literacy, mathematics, and science administered in sixty countries by the OECD, was not designed to measure students' mastery of a school curriculum but, rather, to evaluate what students can do with the information they have learned. It measures both students' capacity to apply knowledge and skills in key subject areas as well as their ability to analyze, reason, and communicate effectively as they pose, interpret, and solve problems. Simply stated, these are the skills students will need to be successful.

Evidence from OECD research suggests that students who have demonstrated these abilities are more successful after high school. A study of 30,000 Canadian students who took the PISA in 2000 found that six years later those who scored at the highest level in reading were twenty times more likely than those who scored at the lowest level to attend a university. Yet, results from U.S. students on PISA show that other countries are quickly passing us by, leaving American students ranked 30th in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading. And higher performance on PISA can result in a boost to the U.S. economy as well. According to the OECD, if all OECD countries raised their PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years, the OECD gross domestic product would increase by $115 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010.

Quantitative and qualitative evidence sends a clear message: new skills are needed in a global digital age. On an individual level as well as at the national level, our economic success is at stake.

This isn't a time for reinventing the wheel. There are many school systems that have increased student skills markedly in a short time. In my next post, I will share some of the lessons learned.

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