Skill sets for the 21st century

Among the crucial skills that university graduates need and employers look for are creativity and problem-solving, risk-taking, relationship-building and implementation.

Among the crucial skills that university graduates need and employers look for are creativity and problem-solving, risk-taking, relationship-building and implementation.

The stakes appear high in today’s economy for both universities and the students who attend them. Answering the question “Will my degree lead to career success?” is more complicated than ever – with a rapidly changing job market and the growing demand for new and advanced skills.

Canadian universities are adapting to these changes to boost the quality – and relevance – of the learning experiences they provide.

“Our universities are meeting these challenges through innovation and responsiveness,” says Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada. “We’re innovating to meet the needs of 21st-century learners, and both students and institutions are responding to the signals that the labour market and society are sending.”  

One key signal from the labour market is that employers want to hire graduates whose education has made them “job ready,” according to Bruce Good, executive director of the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Business Innovation.

“A decade or two ago, employers themselves took on the responsibility of building job readiness in young new employees. There wasn’t a big demand on universities to deliver that,” says Mr. Good. “There’s been a huge shift – today, employers want students coming of out university already equipped with key skills.”

What are the key skills in demand? This is an area of research and focus for those with an interest in Canada’s competitiveness: educators, government, business and applied-research organizations like the Conference Board.  

Conference Board research shows that companies are increasingly demanding graduates with skills in innovation and commercialization, areas of comparative weakness for Canada on the global stage. “The ability to innovate is anchored in four skill sets: creativity and problem-solving, risk-taking, relationship-building and implementation,” says Mr. Good. Success at commercialization depends on skills in business management, raising capital, collaboration and networking, and most crucially, he says, in sales and marketing. “Skills once considered ‘soft’ are now truly becoming ‘hard’ skills,” he says.

The Conference Board is looking to work with universities and businesses to explore various options for building these skills in new generations of workers. “All employees need these skills for Canada to truly compete in the new millennium. This is non-negotiable if Canadians are going to win on the global stage.”

In a recent survey by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, employers also cited communications and people skills, analytical abilities and leadership as top qualities needed for new employees. They also put a high priority on practical experience through co-ops and other models of “work-integrated learning.”  

“Today, over 50 per cent of Canadian university students have some form of work-integrated learning in their program,” says Mr. Davidson. “We want to see even more, and we’re working with business organizations and employers to encourage them to open their doors to the phenomenal talent on campuses across the country.”

Universities have also responded to the growing demand for international and intercultural competencies. More than 80 per cent of Canadian universities now have joint academic programming with institutions in other countries; many of those programs lead to joint degrees.

MacEwan University in Edmonton was once a community college, and that tradition has strengthened the institution’s emphasis on job readiness, says its president David Atkinson. “As we have transformed into a university, we have retained our focus on career development and practical experience integrated with academics,” he says. “More than 40 of our programs have significant practical components.”

MacEwan uses various approaches to enhance graduates’ acquisition of knowledge and skills demanded in the work environment – from offering Bachelor of Arts degrees with a minor in business, to updating course content with advice from committees of working professionals.
In Dr. Atkinson’s view, universities need to also enhance their contributions to continuing education. “We must recognize that most of the jobs our students will be working at don’t exist right now. If we narrow their education too much, they risk seeing their skills go out of date,” he says.

“The world is changing too rapidly, and we need to understand that continuing education, extension and professional upgrading have to be part of the core operations of universities if they are going to maintain their relevance.”

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