21st Century skills for career practitioners

During the last 12 – 18 months a range of reports were published highlighting the skills people need for the 21st century.

Putting aside the issue of whether it makes sense to talk of any one set of skills remaining valid for 100 years, what 21st century skills do career practitioners need for meeting the challenges of our communities?

I suggest three skills:

  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Advanced critical analysis
  • Sense making
1. Transdisciplinarity

Many problems are too complex to be solved by one specialised discipline. Career development would benefit greatly from an expanded discipline base. I’ll give two examples where we should tap a wider range of disciplines.


When I examine the development of theory in career development, I am struck by how much of that theory comes from one discipline – namely psychology. The bulk of career development journals, articles, editors, references, are based in psychology. Psychology has made a major contribution to career development and continues to play an important role in influencing the profession. Valuable though this is, it does present limitations.

Take constructionism, the theory that underpins sense making. There is plenty of material available in other spheres dating back well before it was articulated in career development.  Disciplines with something to say about constructionism include: sociolinguistics, cultural studies, semiotics rhetorical studies, gender analysis, discourse analysis to name a few. Yet most of this material is not referred to.

Labour market dynamics

Career development has rightly given increased prominence to labour market information.

To fit into the labour market we know there is a clear image of a desirable worker: autonomous, individual responsibility, work ready, branded, Me, hyper-connected, 24/7 availability.

We readily accept this view This is part of our taken-for-granted knowledge.

Yet, this is a transactional, commodified view of workers, and there’s a risk that career development is complicit in cultivating it with clients.

Having a workforce that is convinced that it’s their responsibility to be autonomous, work-ready, with the burden of adaptation placed entirely on their shoulders, and promoting an education system as there to develop employable people, means employers can get away with little training, and not hiring entry level staff.

Training doesn’t create jobs. Businesses need demand to justify employing people, and growing industries train the staff they need.

Some knowledge of economics would help us assess labour market dynamics. For example there’s a small body of work that analyses the discourses of skills gaps and employability skills, raising questions about how valid these terms are, whose interests they serve, and what impact they have.

We need some understanding of economics so we know:

  • What really causes unemployment
  • How labour markets really work
  • Whether economic growth needs to be sacrosanct.

Our knowledge of labour market information needs to be complemented by labour market intelligence, an ability to identify vested interests, and to decode econobabble so as to offer clients an informed and realistic perspective on the labour market.

Hope comes from realism not denial or uninformed optimism.

An alternative worker image, one more likely to contribute to a civil and just world, is a person who is: self-reliant and interdependent, civil, concerned about reputation, mature, self-controlled, reflective, socially aware, caring and care giving, active citizens.

2. Advanced critical Analysis

A popular approach to issues is to start a conversation. I’m torn between two places here.

On the one hand, I am just so over having a conversation. Absolutely. So often a conversation is a slinging match between fixed positions. It’s very easy to think that something has been achieved by having a conversation. Often though we don’t need more conversations. What we do need is more action.

On the other hand, our profession gains from exploring its knowledge base. However, we need to be far more critical in selecting and assessing material and resources to share. Rather than the ‘click and flick’ approach, meaning something looks interesting and it’s flicked onto discussion boards, stop to consider whether the material is in fact worth sharing. There’s a lot of questionable material out there.

As an example, there’s a vast volume of generation-based material, that rarely expands our knowledge. Rather, it fuels the politics of difference, ignores variations within generational categories, and often serves marketing ends, masquerading as thought leadership.

If I’m going to look at what’s shared I need to be convinced of its value. Before sharing, ask some questions:

  • Author/s: who wrote it, what is their expertise? Are they reputable? Is the organisation aligned or independent? Is it well written? Did you write it? Then it’s likely self-promotion.
  • Audience: who is the target audience of the report? This will influence the style of writing [e.g. academic, general public, business, government]
  • Methods: what research methods were used, are they sound? [An Internet-based survey is not necessarily statistically valid]
  • Funding: who funded the research, have they influenced the research, do they have a vested interest in the results?
  • Purpose: what is the stated purpose of the research, is it convincing, likely to generate something useful, or is it camouflaged PR or marketing material?
  • Evidence: does the research provide useful and sound evidence of results? Does the research provide facts, or are prophesies, opinions, beliefs masquerading as facts?
  • Conclusions: what conclusions were reached, are they well founded. Does the report tell us something we don’t know, confirm something we’re not sure about, or retell what is already known? Are there flaws in the theory, reasoning, assumptions?
  • What is raised that could be further explored? Are useful references listed?
  • Application: what practical application is there for career practitioners? How have you made use of the information?
  • Gaps: what are the gaps in the research, are these filled by other research?

For example:

The Mitchell Institute released a report in March 2017 titled ‘Preparing young people for the future of work, a Policy Roundtable Report’. The Mitchell Institute at Victoria University “works to improve the connection between evidence and policy reform. We promote the principle that high-quality education, from the early years through to early adulthood, is fundamental to individual wellbeing and to a prosperous society.”

The report informs us that “in 2016 Mitchell Institute brought together a group of leaders from across Australia to consider a challenge which is putting our nation’s wellbeing and future prosperity at risk: preparing young people for the future of work.” While the Roundtable is described as made up of education practitioners, government leaders, policy specialists and researchers who put forward two ideas about how Australia’s education system can change to accelerate innovation and improve transitions to employment: [Transforming senior secondary education; and Revitalising apprenticeships], there is no information about who these people actually were, and whether they included young people or career practitioners, leaving open the question of what range of expertise did they bring to the table? Were they primarily educationalists, or was a diverse range of expertise tapped?

The report briefly outlines known challenges facing young people as they navigate their way into the world of work. The focus is on how to reform Australia’s education system, which is central to the Institute’s mission. The potential need to reform the labour market is not raised.

What is of interest in this report is the reference to the education goals stated in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational goals for Young Australians [2008], namely:

  • Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence, and
  • All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, active and informed citizens.

Two issues are identified with these goals: poor measurement and a narrow focus on NAPLAN and ATAR scores.

The conclusion is that: ‘In general, we have successfully boosted educational attainment, but Australia’s education system is not succeeding at excellence, engagement, equity or equipping young people for the future.’ This last phrase, equipping young people for the future, is commonly used in reports about work and education, but is given little clarity or definition, other than by inference, that the world of work demands something other than what is currently offered.

The report usefully discusses the unhelpful separation of academic and vocational learning and problems with the VET sector. The report states that: ‘There is a persistent tendency for many parents, students and schools to view VET as a much less prestigious and valuable pathway, compared to the academic pathway that leads to university.’ Suggesting that different forms of apprenticeship models be researched will not address the ‘prestige perception’ issue.

Also of value is the suggestion that educators cultivate young people’s capabilities within both academic and vocational learning streams, that both streams equip young people with technical and academic knowledge and mindsets.

Among the potential solutions offered in the report is one relevant to career development practitioners: ‘improving career exploration and career guidance options for school students to expand young people’s understanding of the variety of pathways available, the core skills and attributes needed within various job clusters, and a focus on developing young people’s ability to identify their strengths and interests.’ Not knowing whether the career development profession was represented at the Roundtable means we don’t know whether changes in government policy and cut backs in resources which directly impact the availability of practitioners, was discussed. Without this information the solution is a motherhood statement, one that appears in many documents.

Referencing for the report is based largely on education-related sources. An interesting reference relates to how the ‘4Cs’ do not exist without the ‘3Rs’, which in turn links to an article about how critical thinking cannot be taught as a stand-alone set of skills but is linked to content knowledge. In order to, for example, think like a scientist, you need to have deep knowledge of the concepts, facts and procedures of a scientist.

This raises questions about asking people to list knowledge and skills separately, and job descriptions which list skills and knowledge requirements separately.

We would all benefit if our approach to sharing material was more critical, and nuanced.

3. Sense making

The third 21st century skill for career practitioners is sense making, the process by which we interpret the world and decide what it means.

Sense making is under-pinned by several beliefs about how the world works:

  • Sense making is about creating plausible (workable) rather than accurate understandings.
  • Language is central to sense making. Language is not a neutral, transparent medium. Rather it reflects systems of values, beliefs and social practices.
  • Some interpretations of how the world works are privileged over others. Power is expressed in acts that shape what people accept, take for granted, and reject.
  • Taken-for-granted knowledge needs to challenged so as to understand how conventional understandings come to be regarded as ‘natural’ or ‘true’.

As sense makers we need to pay attention to our own and our client’s ‘mental pantries’, notice what meanings are being used, suspend judgement, and have sophisticated questioning skills to unearth understandings.

If we’re to play a role in building a better future, we need to challenge our own thinking and practices and help our clients to challenge their taken-for-granted views of how the world works.

Ours is not an apolitical profession nor is it value-neutral. How we construct reality, particularly through our language practices, has consequences.

Career practitioners use a variety of tools to help clients explore who they are. Some care is needed with our labels. For example, several of these tools apply labels across the introvert-extrovert spectrum. These tools tell me I lean towards the introvert end of this spectrum However, this is not a label I claim as part of my identity,

And why would I. I live in a culture that values extroversion.

People think it’s okay to comment to me: ‘You’re quiet’, ‘you’re not saying much’. Have they been tracking how often I say something? What is the benchmark for measuring my frequency? While I might notice a person taking up lots of air time or talking in order to think, it never occurs to me to say to them –‘Gee, you’re talking a lot today’ or ‘When will you stop talking to allow someone else to say something?’ I might think these thoughts, but I never say it. Yet people think it’s okay to comment on my absence of commentary.

The label ‘introvert’ tells me something about how I do me. But it doesn’t define me. It’s not part of who I am.

When exploring identity with clients, take care with the choice and use of labels and categories. Offer generous lists of terms, expanded well beyond those qualities required by employers or categorised by our practice. Such generosity opens possibilities and expands our sense of who we are or could become.

When it comes to offering clients hope for the future, possibility and realism are where it’s at.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.