Author Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 76, Issue 4 - December/January 2017
PublisherITEEA, Reston, VA
ReleasedNovember 15, 2016
Technology and Engineering Teacher - Volume 76, Issue 4 - December/January 2017

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Resources in Technology and Engineering: Twenty-first Century Skills

Student learning outcomes, beyond the traditional, need to be crafted for the 21st century learner.


Except for the Great Depression, the United States’ economy boomed during the first three-quarters of the 20th Century. America developed into an industrial and technological giant. Factories covered the landscape. Families joined the middle class in droves. Leading into the 1970s, this was the kind of economy that fueled a higher standard of living for the new middle class. It was a manufacturing economy that was reflected in all parts of society. Even the process of education was modeled on the factory (Apple, 1979). Classes changed on the sound of a bell. Each student tended to his or her own studies. The teacher was the center of focus. These were certainly reflections of a production economy that has survived into the 21st Century. But since the 1970s, the economy has been shifting (Stone, Trisi, Sherman, & DeBot, 2015). In the face of an inadequate response to the changing economy, the wealthy are becoming wealthier, the middle class is experiencing a lower standard of living relative to most of the 20th Century, and poverty is still a concern (Dabla-Norris, Kochhar, Suphaphiphat, Ricka, & Tsounta, 2015). In part, these effects are policy-related, but they are also technology-related.


The Shifting Economy

In the early days of personal computing, users had to write programs to get the computers to perform as intended. For the average employee, word processing and accounting were tedious tasks because of the programming required. Eventually, computer programmers began to write operating systems and software for personal computers that allowed anyone to use them. The user no longer had to program a word processor, but could now simply use a purchased program to write a letter. This capability popularized personal computers. Then, as more people purchased personal computers, they became so affordable that billions more people around the world were able to purchase them. These billions were located in the Soviet Union, which fell, and India and China, which began removing obstacles to trade. Finally came the rise of the internet. The ability of people to communicate nationally from computer to computer was one step in this process, but when dot com companies wired the globe with broadband networking technology, the global economy and the nature of work changed forever (Friedman, 2005). Over this phase of technological change, many governments around the world reduced bureaucracy and entered into trade agreements that removed many barriers to global trade, such as tariffs and restrictions on expatriate business starts.


Once these technical and policy components were in place, companies found that they could communicate and process data in real time around the world. With computer software and the proliferation of personal computers, the internet, broadband access, and free trade, companies were able to transition from traditional top-down organizations to horizontally organized efforts that became more innovative and able to react to change more quickly. They have been able to outsource labor-intensive processes to lower-wage, lower-cost locations offshore, and they have even opened their own operations offshore (Friedman, 2005). Simultaneously, automation for financial and communication processes, transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing technology has significantly improved efficiency for operations that have remained in the U.S.


Because of these changes, the days in which a young person could drop out of high school, get a factory job, and lead a modest but secure lifestyle are gone. In the past, someone with a high school diploma could get a manufacturing job and live a middle class existence; not anymore. College graduates used to be able to hold a management job for life and retire on the company’s pension plan; not anymore. The circumstances described above have created a dynamic and highly competitive business environment around the world and have changed the global economy and the nature of work.


However, this economic change has happened so rapidly that people have not been able to adapt to it, and the income inequality that began to evolve as productivity declined in the 1970s is now becoming greater in the global economy.


There are profound implications for workforce education. It is not enough that students and displaced workers pass tests and keep up with technology. The 21st century worker will be (and is) communicating with diverse customers and diverse coworkers from around the world or will be assisting those who do. With increases in immigration to the United States, their immediate coworkers will have diverse backgrounds. They will experience rapid deployment of innovative ideas, and they must be able to adapt to those innovations. Lifelong learning will be second nature to them if they are to succeed. In the face of this change, 21st century workers must become problem-solvers who can both collaborate with people from diverse cultures and at the same time think critically for themselves. They must be able to think creatively and communicate effectively to participate in the development of innovations that will drive the economy in the global market.


Wealth and Poverty

The short-term result of this economic shift thus far in the 21st century is that the top 10 percent of Americans, who had already accumulated wealth, are growing more wealthy, while thousands of Americans have lost their higher-paying production jobs and have taken lower-paying ones that are not supporting their families at a level to which they had become accustomed. And for those who were already working low-skill, low-wage jobs, they are seeing very little or no wage growth whatsoever (Stone et al., 2015).


The inability of displaced workers to adapt is creating a widening gap in income and wealth between the lower 90 percent of American families and the upper 10 percent of families. For the richest 1 percent of Americans, income grew 200% since 1979. It grew 67 percent for the next richest 19 percent, 48 percent for the middle 60 percent, and 40 percent for the lowest 20 percent of Americans, the poorest. Most of that growth occurred in the 2000s (Stone et al., 2015). The same thing is true for wealth accumulation. The top 10 percent of wealthiest families in the United States hold 75 percent of the nation’s wealth (Stone et. al.).


While minority wages have grown some recently, the wealth gap between whites and minorities has grown wider. As of 2013, median net worth for white families was $141,900, for black families, $11,000, and for Hispanic families, $13,700 (Kochhar & Fry, 2014). A person’s sex matters too. Women in the United States only make 79.9% of what men earn (Proctor, Semega, & Kollar, 2016). Generally, minority women with the same education make significantly less than white women. This pay gap impacts families. The percentage of mothers earning one-fourth of the family’s income or greater increased to 63 percent as of 2012, and for 40 percent of mothers with school-age children, the gender pay gap is a cause of reduced nutrition, less healthcare, and fewer opportunities to experience activities that enrich learning (American Association of University Women, 2016).


Figure 1. U.S. poverty rates by demographics (Proctor, Semega, & Kollar, 2016).

It is important to keep in mind that the United States is emerging from economic recession with a low rate of growth. However, for 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau reports an overall poverty rate of 13.5% (or approximately 43.1M people), down 1.3% from 2014. Females (heads of household), blacks, Hispanics, and children have the highest poverty rates. However, all four of those groups experienced the largest reductions in poverty rates from 2014 to 2015 (Proctor, Semega, & Kollar, 2016).


Standard of Living

The Economic Policy Institute is a labor-union-supported think tank focused on policy that affects lower and moderate income workers. It asserts that policies are to blame for income and wealth inequality. It claims that for the past three decades, the economy was strong enough to support wage growth for low and moderate income workers, but most of the real gain went to the wealthiest one percent of Americans. The Institute estimates that for the middle three-fifths of Americans, a median income of $76,443 would have been $94,310 in 2007 had there not been growth in income inequality. The Institute also estimates that between 1948 and 1973, productivity increased by 96.7% and hourly wages increased 91.3%. But, between 1973 and 2013, productivity increased 74.4% and hourly wages only increased 9.2% (Mishel, Gould, & Bivens, 2015). A Pew Research Center estimate clearly illustrates the problem with the standard of living in the new economy. Between 1964 and 2014, when adjusted for purchasing power, the median wage for private sector production and nonmanagement workers (excluding farm workers) grew by only $1.49 (Desilver, 2014).


Table 1. U.S. Poverty Rates y Demographics (Proctor, Semega, & Kollar, 2016)

Wealthy families can buy the goods and services that they need. Poor families, not as well. Wealthy families typically have a network of friends with power and influence on whom they can call for opportunities. Poor families, not typically. Wealthy families, by and large, have been well educated for generations. Poor families have not. This is the inequality of income, and this is the inequality of opportunity (Dabla-Norris et al., 2015). Working families, the working poor, and the poverty stricken have more worries than do the wealthy, and this can create disadvantages. Parents may need to work two jobs, transportation may be unreliable or inefficient, communication technology may be unavailable, and even housing may become a concern. A family might have Medicaid, but cannot visit a doctor because area doctors stopped accepting Medicaid patients. As a community falls into economic distress, grocery stores move away, creating “food deserts.” Depending on whether or not a community has effectively diversified its economy, the community itself may be poverty stricken. Whether urban or small town, old plants from the manufacturing heyday may litter the landscape. In the countryside, fields that were once sown with crops lay dormant. The lack of meaningful employment creates crime, and local governments are not able to provide services or supplement funding for schools. In turn, high-skill, high-wage employers are reluctant to locate there.


Twenty-First Century Technology

It is important to remember that the average citizen of the United States is better off today than he or she would have been at the turn of the last century. While there may have been limited growth in buying power more recently, the standard of living truly is better now than it was then. In 1900, there were relatively few consumer goods to buy. People had to make things for themselves, but now the variety of goods is nearly overwhelming. Then, there was limited credit for buying land and a home, but now credit is more widely available. As factories shifted from water to coal for power, air and water quality declined, but now factories are cleaner. Average life expectancy in 1900 was 49.24 years (Arias, 2015), and as of 2013, average life expectancy is 78.8 years (Xu, Murphy, Kochanek, & Bastian, 2016). Then, like now, key technological innovations caused the economy and the nature of work to change.


Figure 2. Mobile internet will sweep the world within the next 10 years.

Technology Diffusion

The extent to which a technological innovation is adopted throughout society is known as technology diffusion, and widely diffused innovations tend to have a larger economic impact. Technology diffusion can proceed relatively rapidly or relatively slowly. For example, the steam engine had various uses. It quickly spread to power locomotives, ships, automobiles, farm equipment, and factories. However, the electric motor had limited applications at first because most factories were rigged with mechanisms that transmitted steam power. Gradually, as factory after factory upgraded, the electric motor became one of the most fundamentally important inventions in economic history. The electric motor made it possible for manufacturers to open up more production lines and more factories, employing more people (Manyika, Chui, Bughin, Dobbs, Bisson, & Marrs, 2013). As described so well by Friedman (2005), the internet’s diffusion followed a similar process.


Three of the wealthiest nations on earth are the United States, Germany, and Japan. They also spend more on research and development than any other country. Innovations from these three countries are diffused (as ideas) to other countries that, in turn, profit from production related to the technology. Sometimes the ideas are pirated and sometimes licensed, but this diffusion process demonstrates that innovation drives both wealth and productivity (Eaton, 2016).


Disruptive Technologies and Emerging Job Markets

Innovative computer technology enabled the latter half of the economic shift discussed thus far, and technological innovations will continue to drive the new economy. These drivers are transforming America’s emerging job markets—and the world’s. Manyika et al. (2013) refer to widely diffused technologies as “disruptive” if they have the potential to change the economy. Disruptive technologies cause the displacement of workers in fields that are affected by the technological innovation and its diffusion. For example, the ability of computers to learn and handle large amounts of data is making it possible to automate processes related to knowledge work, clerical work, and transactions. Computing technology is now able to interpret variable voice commands, organize data, and manipulate the data to complete processing with much less human intervention compared to the recent past. The implication is that, within the next 10 years, any sort of data-processing staff, managers, accountants, clerical staff, and transaction clerks could become obsolete or used to take care of only the most complex operations (Manyika et al.) The extent to which this would shift the workforce would far exceed the extent to which clerks have been replaced by ATMs and self-checkout. However, the automation is estimated to save companies, governments, and consumers billions of dollars (Manyika et al.).


Mobile internet is predicted to be another disruptive technology. With the assistance of satellite technology, cell phone coverage will expand to remote locations in developing countries, and the remaining 40 percent of the world’s population will gain access. Mobile computing with advanced smartphones will benefit the poor, save governments money, and open up vast markets for commerce and trade. The potential for increases in employment extend less to those occupations concerned with the development and maintenance of the system, and more to the increase in manufacturing of goods overseas, shipping and logistics, and management of commerce (Manyika et al., 2013).



Figure 3. Compare U.S. cell coverage to that of India (Sensorly, 2015; Sensorly uses Google Maps).

Renewable energy is finally becoming a significant part of the economy. Wind and solar are becoming economically viable and more widely diffused. The cost of solar panels is going down, and efficiency is going up. Simultaneously, people are more concerned about greenhouse gasses from the burning of fossil fuels. Wind energy could follow suit. Depending on the price of fossil fuels into 2025, significant changes could result in the power-generation industry, affecting jobs with some shift from power plant operations to grid management and installation (Manyika, et al., 2013). In fact, Manyika, et al. (2013) have predicted that there will be 12 disruptive technologies as shown in Table 2 (next page).


Preparing for the Future

Over the last century, technology has changed drastically, innovation is increasing exponentially, but the implications for workforce education have not changed much at all. In the early 1900s, Dewey called for a shift from classical education to one of relevancy, in which each student would be prepared as a lifelong learner and problem solver; the only sure way to prepare for an uncertain future in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. At the start of the Cold War, there was a push for people to go into science and technology to solve the nation’s defense and industrial problems. In the 1990s, the SCANS report called for the development of employee skills needed by all employers. And now in the 21st Century, leaders are calling for 21st century skills. Throughout that progression and now, the workforce and students have been urged to become career-ready.


Career and College Readiness

Student learning outcomes, beyond the traditional, need to be crafted for the 21st-century learner. It is essential that each student develops a foundation of knowledge, but that is only the beginning. He or she must then have the opportunity to engage in learning that builds on that foundation. There must be enough time in the school day to allow students to actually move from simple application to creation of solutions to problems. There must be time for group projects with diverse students, set in motivating contexts that reflect real life, and these need to be both short-term and long-term opportunities for the student to transfer what was mastered to new situations. This engagement needs to include the development of speaking skills, reading comprehension, writing skills, presentation skills, mathematical reasoning, scientific reasoning, critical thinking, technology use, and career and college planning. Once on the job, each employee needs to stay abreast of changes in his or her occupation and related fields. Weekly readings and regular participation in professional development will help to make frequent workplace transitions go more smoothly.


More than anyone else, students whose families are at a financial disadvantage, as described in the section on income and wealth inequality, need to work hard at developing 21st century skills and should push for access to quality STEM programs and other college preparatory courses. They should join school and community clubs, such as the Technology Student Association, which will expose them to the world of technology through community service, internships, tours, competitions, and travel.


Table 2. Technologies With the Potential to Disrupt the Economy.

Classroom STEM

Have students create their own career-development plans. Start by taking one of the many career inventories available for free through your state or provincial employment agency. Have students research careers that are related to their interests. Show students how to access the Occupational Outlook Handbook at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ website. As an introduction to that site, click on “Fastest Growing” and “Most New Jobs.” Students will quickly see that many of the fastest growing jobs are low-wage, but “software developers” and “IT professionals” are among the highest paid on the list. Be sure to point out that many of those careers listed under Fastest Growing and Most New Jobs are related to the disruptive technologies discussed in this article. Finally, as part of their planning, have students track requirements backward from job entry to college and from college to community college, from community college to high school, and, if appropriate, from high school to middle school.



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Desilver, D. (2014). For most workers, real wages have barely budged for decades. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

Eaton, J. (2016). Technology and the global economy. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat. New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Kochhar, K. & Fry, R. (2014). Wealth inequality has widened along racial, ethnic lines since end of great recession. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

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Manyika, J., Chui, M., Bughin, J., Dobbs, R., Bisson, P., Marrs, A. (2013). Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy. San Francisco, CA: McKinsey Global Institute. Retrieved from

Mishel, L., Gould, E., & Bivens, J. (2015). Wage stagnation in nine charts. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from

Proctor, B. D., Semega, J. L., & Kollar, M. A. (2016). Income and poverty in the United States: 2015. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from

Sensorly. (2015). Coverage maps. Paris, France: Mosaic. Retrieved from|coverage

Stone, C., Trisi, D., Sherman, A., & DeBot, B. (2015). A guide to statistics on historical trends in income inequality. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved from

Xu, J., Murphy, S. L., Kochanek, K. D., & Bastian, B. A. (2016). National vital statistics report. Hyattsville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from



Vincent W. Childress, Ph.D., is a professor in Technology Education at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina. He can be reached at