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The Power Skills Required to Boost Graduate Employability

Olivier Lazar, Vice President for Youth & Social Impact at Project Management Institute and Chief Operating Officer at the Project Management Institute Education Foundation

On the arrival of World Youth Skills Day – recognised in mid-July – data published by UNICEF and the Education Commission highlights the challenge that lies ahead for the next generation of workers. From a survey of young people aged between 15 and 24 from 92 countries, it was revealed that almost 75% aren’t currently on track to possess the skills required for employment.

This is a wake-up call that was striking, but long overdue. The acceleration of digital transformation has reformed the value and deployment of professional skills and – while this became a more prominent topic during the pandemic – it is a transition we have been witnessing over the course of the last two decades. We should be recognising these trends and adjusting the way we equip young people for the roads that lie ahead.

Building next-gen changemakers with power skills

One of the most significant skills shifts we’ve witnessed recently is that towards soft skills. As businesses increasingly automate administrative tasks, professionals are focusing on new responsibilities that require coherence in skills such as communication, creativity, emotional intelligence, leadership, and problem-solving. These business critical skills for today and tomorrow, we are calling ‘power skills’.   

Those that develop a strong set of power skills will be best placed to evolve into next-gen leaders, capable of turning ideas into reality. These are individuals that we call changemakers. In a world that faces a demand to transform – be it the shift to digital or the transition to a carbon-free economy – people that can make change happen are invaluable assets to their employees and their societies.

Organisations are already recognising this: our data reveals that over half (54%) of agile businesses are prioritising the development of power skills over traditional hard skills, compared to 42% of traditional businesses. It is important to stress that changemakers are not limited to those in senior positions. It is vital to engage with young people entering the workforce in order to empower them to make an impact from day one.

This mentality is only born from a solid set of power skills. As such, it is the responsibility of both employers and educators to ensure they develop learning opportunities and training for young people to learn and build an effective power skills at the start of their careers. If this is done effectively, young professionals can make an exceptional impact on the world around them, as demonstrated by the honourees on our Future 50 list for 2022. These are 50 rising leaders, who are using bold and innovative thinking to transform the world through notable projects, represent a new generation of fearless changemakers dedicated to forging a better tomorrow.

Introducing project skills via creative channels

When we think about how we introduce these new skills to young people, it’s easy to restrict your imagination to traditional classroom learning. It is well known amongst educators that everyone’s preferred learning style is different.

Providing opportunities to learn new power skills through project based training will be the key to unlocking potential from an earlier age. We should encourage teachers, lecturers, and mentors to get creative with how they introduce project management to their students. Project management training is now a recognised pathway for upskilling and employment preparation. At PMI, we see it as a critical part of our mission to enable young people to learn important life and professional skills through project principles.

A leading example of this concept in action is F1 in Schools, the leading global STEM competition for young students between the ages of 11 and 19. Project Management Institute Educational Foundation has partnered with F1 in Schools to integrate a bespoke project management curriculum into the competition, enabling nearly 1 million students from across the world to learn about the foundations of project management.

This initiative promotes STEM skills in a hands-on setting by leveraging the rising fanhood of Formula One among young people. F1 in Schools competition now includes a dedicated category that rewards the team with the best demonstration of project management skills.

By making it necessary for competitors to document their project management processes through the creation of a seven page portfolio – and consider how best they can streamline their actions – F1 in Schools brings the skillset into a real-world scenario that demonstrates its value.

This benefit was epitomised when we spoke to this year’s winners of the project management award, Scarborough University Technical College (UTC) from the UK. Team project manager Libby Atkin, 17, said: “Before F1 in Schools, I had a basic idea of what project management was, but no idea about putting it into practise. Throughout this competition I’ve learnt an array of skills and principles that have given me more confidence when entering the world of work and starting my career.”

Team leader Missy, 18, also from Scarborough UTC explained how applying project management learning helped her to cope with work and life pressures as a student. “I had A-Levels exams the day of the national F1 in Schools hand in deadline, and an exam the day after. My newly learnt project skills helped me to balance study, revision, and getting everything completed for the competition. Using the project management learning has made the experience more efficient and lot less stressful.”

Project skills as a critical pathway for graduates

The hot topic of employability becomes even more critical as young people enter their time in further and higher education. The pressure is on for university and college students to clarify and decide on their career pathways. Further education establishments are now starting to realise the value of taking a more skills-based approach to prepare their students for the workforce. It’s an opportunity for graduates – whatever their path of study is – to develop project skills that they can apply to their chosen path.

Supplementing degree qualifications with more skills-based training gives the next generation of young people business critical skills such as team management, goal setting, adapting to new ways of working, and time management. These skills can be applied across many roles and industries, arming them with tools for effective working practices and making them eminently more employable.

Moreover, upskilling young professionals through project management training can unlock their collaborative and leadership potential. Communication and stakeholder management are integral take-aways for project professionals. Let’s open up these opportunities for graduates to become our next generation leaders through skills-based training.

At PMI we believe that leaders of today can learn from young people. We can learn from their flexibility, their drive, motivation to make a difference in the world, and the value of fresh perspectives. Coupled with a generation that is even more digitally literate than the last, young professionals bring so much to rapidly changing organisations – the key will be unlocking their potential and preparing them for the workplace. There is a clear business case to empowering this generation to be changemakers.

Turning climate advocacy into careers

Another area where passion and skills can align is sustainability. The United Nations recently wrote: ‘young people are not only victims of climate change, but valuable contributors to climate action. They are agents of change, entrepreneurs and innovators’. At a time when the green skills gap represents a concerning hurdle between governments and organisations and their sustainability goals, how they leverage the passion of the next generation may determine success or failure in the long term. 

The increased presence of sustainability as a boardroom topic has brought with it a demand for new roles and skillsets that are scarce in the job market. One example is carbon accounting, which will be compulsory for organisations to accurately track progress against their net zero goals and identify room for improvement. Carbon accounting talent, however, is rare to come across and demands a premium in a competitive green recruitment drive. This is a gap waiting to be filled by the next generation of sustainability workers.

If governments, education bodies, and organisations aligned on emerging green skills gaps and reacted accordingly – either with curriculum changes, new university course options, or a more pressing effort to upskill workers – the UK could develop a hotspot for net zero talent and generate the experts that businesses need to reach their climate goals. We’ve seen this approach evolve the UK’s status as a tech hub – with an ever-growing stream of coders, developers, and programmers – so know it can be effective when done right.

Education professionals know from experience the vast capabilities of this generation. Injecting project and power skills into the curriculum is a new way to boosting their talents, giving them practical tools for life and their future careers. Moreover, project skills enable this generation to become rising leaders and changemakers, arming them with the practical tools to make a positive impact in the world.

By Olivier Lazar, Vice President for Youth & Social Impact at Project Management Institute and Chief Operating Officer at the Project Management Institute Education Foundation

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