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Creating Global Citizens in the 21st Century, A Conversation with Fernando Reimers

By: Tatiana Shevchenko 

Fernando Reimers, the Ford Foundation professor of practice in international education, director of the international education policy faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and director of the Global Education Innovation Initiative, took part in a conversation with Jobs for the Future (JFF) on employability skills, which draws on his knowledge of and experience with education and systems in the United States, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. The discussion underscores how integral employability skills are to preparing learners for global jobs and to addressing the demands of an increasingly diverse workforce—both in the United States and abroad.

JFF: What are the key skills necessary to be successful in the global economy?

Reimers: As I think about the kinds of skills that people need for employment in the 21st century, I think of them on two levels: what skills will help young people get jobs that exist today, and what skills might they need for jobs of the future? We know that many of today’s jobs will not exist in 10 to 15 years. However, one thing that will remain constant is that all jobs will require the capacity to solve problems.

The broader framework of problem-solving is made up of competencies. The process starts with using your cognitive skills: the ability to think about cause and effect of a given problem. A learner needs to access and employ one’s basic knowledge. One needs to communicate to understand the scope of the problem and to start working with others to design a solution. This falls under the realm of interpersonal competencies, or self-governance skills, which relate to the execution of problem solving. In this phase, the capacity to learn and seek new knowledge is required. While problem solving seems simple enough, to be relevant it must be learned with the support of educators and employers.

JFF: How can educators and employers prepare students for the world of work?

Reimers: It would be helpful if companies could open their doors to teachers. Teachers should have a chance to observe what happens in the workplace, how the organization is run, and what skills are needed. Creating conversations between educators and employers can help educators understand the world for which they are preparing their students.

In high school, and sometimes even in college, I think most students have no idea about what happens at work, yet there are millions of people working on very interesting jobs. The task is one of effectively using technology to curate information. We can make it possible for students to learn about what jobs exist. This would be valuable to explore as early as in middle school, and would be a great way to generate understanding and excitement.

There is also enormous power in internships. We should strive to make sure that every high school and college student has access to a meaningful summer internship during every year they are in school. Watching someone work and learning from them can be enormously transformative in helping students understand the relevance and purpose of what they are learning in school. I recognize that this proposition would require strong commitment from massive corporations, which would be asked to become invested in the education and in the future of the workforce. Although this might be a hard sell—because in the short term this is not in the corporations’ self interest—in the long term, this is necessary for all parties involved.

JFF: How can they help learners develop employability skills early on?

Reimers: If educational institutions are going to prepare students to function in this rapidly changing and culturally diverse environment, for the sake of innovation, this should be practiced in school. Schools, which in the United States historically have been about assimilating students into a single language and a single culture, should reexamine that notion at a time when there is merit, there is virtue, and there is economic benefit to be gained from having students with real proficiency of what will be required from them in a globalized world: foreign languages, nuanced understanding of different people, and, broadly speaking, 21st-century skills that comprise global citizenship education.

JFF: Why do you think employers should invest the time and energy in establishing these kinds of relationships with educators and students?

Reimers: Our world is becoming much more integrated through globalization, which involves increased ease and reduced cost in telecommunication technologies. As a result, there is greater integration of economic activity across boundaries and a lot of travel and migration. What this means, in many cases, is much greater opportunity to come into contact and competition with others from diverse cultural backgrounds.

We know that innovation and creativity are stimulated by diversity. Teams that include men and women are more creative than the teams that include only men. Teams that include people of different races come up with a wider range of ideas about how to solve problems than more homogenous teams. The business community should see this trend as a source of strength and potential, but also understand that they must invest in such a workforce. Promoting and supporting 21st-century education is good for business.