21st Century or Retro Skills

By Alanna Russell

"Looking for a professional, punctual, self-motivated, problem-solving individual who is familiar with current office technology and can work independently and possesses good communication skills to work in a fast paced customer focused business….”

Does this sound like a want ad for today or could it be from over 20 years ago?

Today’s employability skills are not much different than they were 20-30 years ago. The main difference exists in the non-cognitive skills needed. Employers today are looking for employees that possess those old fashioned or retro type skills. The kind of old fashioned selfless fortitude that drove a person to go above and beyond their minimum job duties to ensure that the quality of customer service is top notch. The kind of skills that motivated Sam Walton to sweep his own store front and pick up cigarette butts off of his stores parking lot! The work environment today is much faster paced and demanding, that we often times forget a simple thank you, or your welcomes. Millennials tend to see work as simply a necessity, a hoop to jump through in order to be able to do the things they really want to do (Gillenwater, 2015). This attitude is reflected in the loss of old fashioned work habits and ethics in today’s work place.

21st Century Skill Set
When students were asked to make a list of the top 5 employability skills they need to acquire in order to secure a job, they listed: Education, Technical skills, Math Skills, and Technology skills (personal communication, January 4, 2016). When asked what they thought was the number one skill needed to secure a job in today’s society, they listed Technology skills as being the top. These are all great skills to have, but are they the only skills needed in today work world? In an attempt to forge their way to the top by gaining and keeping up with the latest technological advances, have today’s workers lost some of the most important employability skills along the way?

In an article by Anya Kamenetz called “Nonacademic Skills Are Key to Success. But What Should We Call Them?”, Kamenetz looks for a good term to describe 21st Century skills but instead she describes the qualities that make up these 21st century skill set. This list of skills seems, a little old fashioned, or more common sense based, not exactly what we would think of as 21st century skills in the age of technology (Kamenetz, 2015). Perhaps in keeping with trendy language a better term might be to label these, “Retro Skills”. This skill set identified includes:

  • Character
  • Grit
  • Growth mindset
  • Non-cognitive Traits and Habits (i.e self-discipline, accountability, punctuality, dependability, self-motivation, time management)
  • Social and Emotional Skills (i.e. empathy for co-workers or customers, following proper social etiquette such as sending thank you notes, sympathy cards, flowers, personal phone calls of appreciation)
  • Soft Skills (i.e. how to answer the telephone or take a phone message properly, presentation skills, leadership skills, communication skills).

Noah Webster stated it best in 1788 when he stated, “the virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head”(Kamenetz, 2015). One would ask then, what do the virtues of man and cultivating the heart, have to do with 21st Century skills? If one doesn’t have a heart for their job and a heart for helping people they will be lacking in those skill set. This is a customer service department’s worst nightmare. If an employee has no virtue, then can they be trusted to be a loyal dedicated employee that looks out for the best interest of other employees, and the company? Probably not.

Technology was designed to make our jobs easier, hence more efficient so that employees, employers, and companies as a whole could focus their attention on making the customers experience a pleasant one. Unfortunately, what has become a side effect of the technological advances is the loss of those soft skills. With the use of technology to communicate, employees forget that there is a real person, with real needs that require attention, help and time. Whether that real person is the customer, the employer, or the employee, the old fashion skills that were so important in the days of Noah Webster are still relevant and important today. Employers don’t have time to babysit their employees. Employers want to know that the employee brings with them the necessary skill set needed to do the job well (Hansen & Hansen, n.d.). On the other hand, customers want businesses that care about them and show it in quality of the product or service they provide as well as the quality of employees they hire. The skill set that employers are searching for in job-seekers is universal and revolve around personal work habits and ethics (Hansen & Hansen, n.d.).

Cultivating Retro Skills
How do career service professional help the job seeker to learn these skills? The following is an easy 3 step process career professionals can use to guide job seekers in cultivating their skills which will ultimately result in a successful harvest of career opportunities.
1. Identify skills you are weak in: Recognize the skills that you struggle with or are more difficult for you.
2. Do not try to eat a cow in one bite: this Old Chinese proverb explains how not to handle those identified as weak skills. Focus on them one at a time (Han, n.d.).
3.Practice, Practice, Practice: The only way to improve at anything is through practice:

  • Get involved in clubs or professional organizations where you can utilize those skills.
  • Networking is a great way to get in practice on those communication skills
  • Obtain a mentor or career coach to practice your skills on and provide you with guidance in bringing your skill set together ensure your employability.

Today’s Employability Skills
How does this apply to today’s employability skills? Let’s first ask “What is the one set of skills that every employer wants an employee to possess”? If you said “21st Century skills”, you are right. 21st Century skills, is how we bring the technological skills together with the old fashioned work habits and ethics of yesteryear. A person who can show up on time, take the initiative to get the job done, accept accountability, communicate clearly, and show genuine interest and pride in the job they do, along with the technological skills needed, will have a long and happy future in any career they choose to enter.

Gillenwater, R. (2015, May 29). Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/246437

Han, L. (n.d.). Soft Skills -- Ask a Wharton MBA. Retrieved from https://bemycareercoach.com/softskills/improve

Hansen, R. P., & Hansen, K. P. (n.d.). What do employers really want? Retrieved from http://www.quintcareers.com/job-skills-values

Kamenetz, A. (2015, May 28). Higher Ed. Retrieved from NPR ED: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/05/28/404684712/non-academic-skills-are-key-to-success-but-what-should-we-call-them


Alanna RussellAlanna Russell is a secondary business education teacher at Salem High School, where she has been the business teacher and FBLA adviser for the past 12 years. Alanna has her BS degree in MIS with Secondary degree Education and MSE in Business Technology from Arkansas State University. She just recently completed her CDF Training in February of this year through Knowledge Works CDF Training. Mrs. Russell can be reached at alanna.russell@salemschools.net, 870-895-3293.

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1 Comment

Allen Reynolds   on Monday 05/02/2016 at 09:06 AM


Your comments are exactly what I hear almost daily from our business partners.

The question becomes, "how do we in the public school community address this soft skills deficit?"

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