Empowering Adults to Thrive at Work: Personal Success Skills for 21st Century Jobs


SRI Education and The Joyce Foundation have released a report that maps out how evidence-based research provides guidance for promoting personal success skills for adults who are striving to build 21st century careers.  Personal success skills are the capabilities—complementary to disciplinary and technical knowledge—that enable adults to deal with the challenges, relationships, transitions, and social systems that make up working life. Important abilities include basic job readiness, self-directed learning, self-management, personal responsibility, effective communication, career management, and everyday problem solving.

Labor and education experts report that critical gaps in personal success skills leave many working-age adults at a disadvantage. The consequences can be dire, with many adults potentially facing chronic unemployment or underemployment. Ideally, people develop personal success skills through positive educational and life experiences. However, many adults have not received the ideal education, developmental experiences, or ongoing social supports to develop personal success skills to the depth needed to thrive in the 21st century workforce. This can be a particularly difficult challenge for adults in underserved communities who have also faced the multiple challenges associated with poverty throughout their lives.

The good news is that several bodies of research show that—with the right supports and effort—adults can develop and enhance their personal success skills throughout their working years. However, many employers, adult educators, and human services providers face challenges supporting adults as they develop these skills. The most basic challenges include defining what personal success skills are important in a given setting and finding effective methods to promote their development. Another challenge is that many great approaches exist but are not accessible or affordable in the settings with the highest needs.

The new report is intended for practitioners, researchers, and policymakers who are seeking to empower various populations of adults to be successful in the 21st century workforce. The goals are to raise awareness about these issues and provide research-based guidance for moving forward. Findings are based on interviews with experts across multiple fields and an extensive review of research in psychology, adult education, workforce development and the learning sciences.

One key research finding is that having a “growth mindset”—understanding that adults can grow and learn with effort, good strategies, and support from others—is important for the development of personal success skills in adulthood. Many people associate learning with being taught in school in childhood and don’t realize that adults are indeed capable of learning and growing, and are actually doing so all the time. In fact, research also shows that the adult brain can continue to develop and grow throughout the working age years.

Research shows that having a growth mindset can strengthen a person’s persistence when faced with challenges of learning. Studies also show that it is possible for adults to learn to have a growth mindset, and that doing so boosts success.

The report also discusses a variety of research-based practices, tools, technologies, and approaches that leaders are using in many contexts to help adults build their personal success skills. Some approaches can be effective quickly and with minimal support. For example, people can learn important skills for setting goals and managing time in just one lesson. Some approaches can take extensive practice over time to build new problem-solving or self-regulatory capacities. Some approaches are less about direct training and more about structuring the culture of work environments to support positive growth and development.

Specific recommendations in the report address widespread barriers to providing effective and affordable support. Some key recommendations include:

  • All stakeholders—practitioners, researchers and policymakers—should become informed about the promise that the learning sciences hold for adult learning. The report provides a quick primer and pointers to key readings.
  • Practitioners should foster social supports for adults to develop personal success skills. Supervisory relationships and peer networks are important, as are organizational or educational practices that provide opportunities for adults to practice and receive feedback in real-world contexts.
  • Researchers should advance the research base on the programs, interventions, practices, and technologies that are effective and affordable. They should also translate the important research already done so that it can be used more immediately in practice.
  • Funders and policymakers should invest in ensuring that research-based approaches to building personal success skills are readily accessible and affordable, as well as invest in programs and practices that promote the development of personal success skills.

While this report focuses on personal success skills for adults as individuals, it’s important to acknowledge that the systemic problems associated with inequitable education and poverty are complex and far reaching. Personal success skills development is only one of many strategies that society needs to apply in order to narrow gaps in opportunity, income, education, and other factors critical to people’s well-being. However, as part of a many-pronged approach to workforce development and education, the development of strong personal success skills can give adults the ability to deal with the challenges associated with building a sustainable career. Taken together, these recommendations are intended to advance the practice, research, and policy necessary to empower a broader spectrum of U.S. adults to thrive in the 21st century workforce.

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