AMA Critical Skills Survey: Workers Need Higher Level Skills to Succeed in the 21st Century

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By AMA Staff

As the U.S. economy begins to show signs of improvement, the workplace will require more of its employees, according to a new survey conducted by American Management Association (AMA). Executives say they need a workforce fully equipped with skills that go beyond the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic (the three Rs) in order to grow their businesses. They now require employees to show competence in "the four Cs:" critical thinking/problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

"AMA's survey shows that an overwhelming number of respondents believe that these 21st century skills are important to their organizations today and will become even more important in the future,” said Edward T. Reilly, AMA President and CEO. "Many executives feel that their current workforce is not as well developed in these areas as they need to be. As such, management will need to address these skill gaps in order to compete in a global market," Reilly said.

In an effort to assess how "top of mind" these skills and competencies are, AMA—in conjunction with P21—surveyed 2,115 managers and other executives in AMA member and customer companies about the importance of the four Cs to their organization today and in the future.

The AMA 2010 Critical Skills Survey defined the skills as follows:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving—the ability to make decisions, solve problems, and take action as appropriate;
  • Effective communication—the ability to synthesize and transmit your ideas both in written and oral formats;
  • Collaboration and team building—the ability to work effectively with others, including those from diverse groups and with opposing points of view;
  • Creativity and innovation—the ability to see what's NOT there and make something happen.

How Are the Four Cs Recognized within Organizations?
According to the AMA survey, executives said these skills and competencies have been articulated within their organizations as priorities for employee development, talent management, and succession planning. In fact, the majority agreed that their employees are measured in these skills during annual performance appraisals. In addition, job applicants are assessed in these areas during the hiring process.

The AMA 2010 Critical Skills Survey also found that many executives believe there is room for improvement among their employees in these skills and competencies.

What Has Changed in Business Today?
Three out of four (75.7%) executives who responded to the AMA survey said that they believe these skills and competencies will become more important to their organizations in the next three to five years, particularly as the economy improves and organizations look to grow.

When asked why they believe these skills and competencies are taking on critical importance in the business environment, 91% rated the pace of change in business today as the leading cause, followed by global competitiveness (86.5%), the nature of how work is accomplished today (77.5%), and the way organizations are structured (66.3%).

Is the U.S. Workforce Prepared?
Are employees equipped to handle these challenges? According to the AMA survey, more than half (51.4%) of executives said their employees were only average in effective communications skills (versus 38.1% who rated them above average), and 46.9% of respondents said their employees were only average in creativity and innovation (compared to 37.4% who rated them above average).

However, executives rated their employees higher in other areas. More than half (51.9%) of executives said their employees were above average in critical thinking (compared to 41.9% who said they were average), and 46.7% of respondents rated their employees above average in collaboration and team building (versus 42% who rated them average).

Closing the Skill Gaps
In order to improve their employees’ skill levels in these areas, respondents identified one-on-one coaching and mentoring as the most effective methods, followed by professional development and training, in-house job training, and job rotation.

The AMA survey also shows that managers and executives believe it is easier to develop these skills in students (58.6%) than it is to develop them in experienced workers (28.8%), suggesting that students and recent graduates may be more open to new ideas, versus experienced workers with established work patterns and habits.

Preparing the Next Generation
The AMA survey showed that 80% of executives believe that fusing the three Rs and four Cs would ensure that students are better prepared to enter the workforce. Proficiency in reading, writing, and arithmetic is not sufficient if workers are unable to think critically, solve problems, collaborate, or communicate effectively.

For more information about the AMA 2010 Critical Skills Survey visit

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.