Employers don’t just want the ‘A’ grade

Success in school does not guarantee success in life. Social skills, and teamwork are highly valued in the labour market

70 million Europeans lack adequate reading and writing skills, and even more have poor numeracy and digital skills
70 million Europeans lack adequate reading and writing skills, and even more have poor numeracy and digital skills

Which skills does this country need? Who needs these skills? Are we talking about skills needed by the labour market to provide employment to young people? Or are we focusing on the 21st century skills our citizens need to acquire, beyond those secured via our traditional academic or vocational education and training systems? 

By 21st century skills, we mean those skills that make people critical thinkers, problem solvers, good communicators, good collaborators, information and technology literate, flexible and adaptable, innovative and creative, globally competent and financially literate. I would hazard a guess that there is no education system that ‘churns’ out these type of skills – particularly since we are dealing with the complicated maxim of ‘education’.

70 million Europeans lack adequate reading and writing skills, and even more have poor numeracy and digital skills, putting them at risk of unemployment, poverty and social exclusion. More than half of the 12 million long-term unemployed are considered as low-skilled. Higher education institutions need to ensure that they equip graduates with relevant and up-to-date skills. 

Yet around 20% of 15-year-olds in the EU do not have sufficient numeracy or reading skills. And while the labour market requires more innovative and entrepreneurial skills, less than a quarter of students have had any entrepreneurship experience by the time they finish school.

In June, the EU launched the New Skills Agenda, primarily as an attempt to boost employability, competitiveness and growth across the EU. It calls on EU member states and stakeholders to improve the quality of skills and their relevance for the labour market. It is centred around three key work strands: 1) Improving the quality and relevance of skills formation; 2) Making skills and qualifications more visible and comparable; and 3) Improving skills intelligence and information for better career choices. The EU is increasingly voicing its concern on skills gaps and proposing strategies and incentives to align the education system with the skills required for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

Malta shares the challenges of other countries in needing to develop high skill, talent-rich economies which can drive high levels of economic growth and enhance social cohesion. While the EU is advocating the need for the education system to prepare young people for the future, the curricula our young people follow at both secondary and post-secondary level have little bearing with the 21st century skills advocated by both the labour market and lifelong learning experts. 

Young people today are caught in a bind: they need to prioritise individual competitiveness with tests and standardised subjects to succeed academically; at the same time, the world outside the classroom is demanding they be entrepreneurial learners, problem solvers, collaborators, and innovators.

Success in school therefore does not guarantee success in life. Adaptability, problem solving, social skills, and teamwork are highly valued in the labour market, and are also capacities that help us thrive as citizens in today’s networked and information-rich world. 

Our educational values need to uphold excellence and achievement, but also recognise that success in real life requires contributing to shared goals, projects, causes, and communities. There are changes that we need to make in our curricula – and we need to make them fast within the framework of the learning outcomes.

Having broadly identified the type of skills that are needed, we need to establish the right research systems to inform our education processes and transform the curriculum. Again, the role of the labour market in providing relevant and timely information about the needs of industry today and tomorrow are vital. There is a caveat in this: some of the more successful global organisations, particularly those in technology, value interdisciplinary skills and frequently recruit people on the basis of their thinking skills as opposed to purely academic tacks. It is not unusual to find people with a philosophy degree working in technology.

We need to set up systems for the accreditation of skills that are not necessarily academic – not just 21st century skills, but also professional qualifications that extend beyond the traditional skills associated with, say accountancy, to sector-specific courses. Recognition and accreditation of non-formal and informal learning and work-based learning is also vital. We need to find ways to incentivise skills and talents development and not simply paper qualifications.

Once the National Skills Council (NSC) is established later this year, we will have a formal structure that will enable the labour market and social partners to work alongside education institutions. It will study the needs of industry and the role of education to better anticipate and address gaps in labour skills and meet market demands. It will also take up ownership of the New Skills Agenda, including funding for vocational education and training programmes. Our objective is that the NSC is empowered to take a leading role not just in the strategic planning for our national labour market, but to work alongside policy-makers and educational institutions and improve the overall skills and competences of our citizens.

Evarist Bartolo is minister for education and employment

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