Project management as a twenty-first century life skill



Students need more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic to survive in the global business world. Today’s students need to learn skills that transcend simple academic knowledge and that provide them with an advantage in the business world. They need life skills, and many of these life skills (identified as needed by twenty-first century students but infrequently taught in schools) are skills that project managers use every day. These skills—communication, teamwork, and ethics—are more important today than ever before. This paper will explore these life skills and what we as project managers can do to help improve this situation.


One topic that has been much discussed recently in the realm of education is that of life skills for the twenty-first century. What skills do students need to survive in the twenty-first century? In the United States, with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, much energy has been expended in attempting to raise the basic skill levels and standards in general curriculum areas such as reading and math, but little attention has been devoted to life skills. The question one keeps hearing in discussions about our educational system is: Are we preparing our children for the world of business and industry without teaching them twenty-first century life skills? Can our students excel with only the basic skills of reading, math, and English? Secondly, what can we as project managers do to assist in the teaching of these twenty-first century life skills? What can we do to better prepare our children for the future?

Life Skills


United Nations

To begin to answer these questions, we must first ask ourselves: What are life skills? What is a twenty-first century life skill? The World Health Organization and the United Nations Children Fund have defined life skills as “abilities for adaptive and positive behavior that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life.” This definition says a great deal, but what does it mean in concrete terms?

Before we go on to explore what twenty-first century life skills are, for the purposes of this article we must first discuss what they are not. When discussed with regard to education, the term life skills usually implies education for those with a learning disability, in which such skills are designed to assist these individuals in being successful in the so-called “outside world” (i.e., beyond school). For the purposes of our discussion, we will not be considering life skills from this perspective; rather, we will explore them from the perspective commonly known in educational circles as “workforce development skills”; namely, the skills, knowledge, and abilities needed after high school for success in the business and industrial worlds.

So, exactly what are these skills, knowledge, and abilities, and how can project management help? The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) further refines life skills as follows: “In particular, life skills are a group of cognitive, personal, and interpersonal abilities that help people make informed decisions, solve problems, think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, build healthy relationships, empathize with others, and cope with and manage their lives in a healthy and productive manner.”

Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities

The UNESCO organization breaks these skills, knowledge, and abilities down into three general areas: 1) cognitive abilities (learning to know), 2) personal abilities (learning to be), and 3) interpersonal abilities (learning to live together).

Learning to Know

Learning to know is further divided into such skills and abilities as decision making, critical thinking, and problem solving. Decision making and problem solving involve information gathering; evaluating consequences; determining alternative solutions; and analyses of motivation, attitudes, and values. Critical thinking skills review internal and external influences, social norms and values, and information sources. In other words, these skills involve making a purposeful judgment based on all of the evidence, while taking into consideration all internal and external environmental influences (e.g., culture).

Learning to Be

Learning to be is dissected into an internal locus of control, managing feelings, and managing stress. The internal locus of control, in turn, consists of such issues as self-esteem, goal setting, self-assessment, self-monitoring, and strengths and weaknesses. Managing feelings involves anger management, anxiety, and coping with stress. Managing stress revolves around time management, positive thinking, and relaxation.

Learning to Live Together

Learning to live together includes, first, communication skills such as verbal and nonverbal communication, active listening, and giving and receiving feedback. Second, it includes negotiation skills, such as the ability to negotiate, assertiveness, receiving feedback, and the ability to say “no.” Third, it includes empathy and the ability to understand others’ needs and circumstances. Fourth, it involves teamwork, the ability to work in a group, to assess the contributions of others as well as one’s own contributions, and to respect others. And, finally, it includes advocacy skills, which involve motivation, persuasion, and influencing skills.


A second organization that advocates life skills is the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). UNICEF concedes that no definitive list of life skills actually exists; however, UNICEF, like UNESCO, refines the original definition into three major categories. The first category is interpersonal communication skills. These skills are further subdivided into communication, negotiation, empathy, cooperation and teamwork, and advocacy skills. The second category consists of decision-making and critical-thinking skills, whereas the third category encompasses coping and self-management skills.

Partnership for the Twenty-first Century

A third group, intricately involved with life skills, is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. This partnership took a slightly different approach to determining what twenty-first century life skills are and, in 2006, surveyed 400 employers across the United States to determine what skills employers consider most important in their new hires.

This survey by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills showed the following to be the top eleven skills among employers:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Oral communications
  • Written communications
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Diversity
  • Information technology application
  • Leadership
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Lifelong learning and self-direction
  • Professionalism and work ethic
  • Ethics and social responsibility

The top four skills cited by employers the most often are as follows:

  • Professionalism and work ethic
  • Oral communications
  • Written communications
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Critical thinking and problem solving

Project Management

Now, where does project management enter into this picture? To answer this question, we should turn to the authority on project management: Project Management Institute. Let’s start by reviewing the Knowledge Areas of the Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)— Fourth Edition, and compare them with the abilities listed by UNESCO, UNICEF, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. The PMBOK® Guide is considered an internationally recognized standard on project management. The nine Knowledge Areas of the PMBOK® Guide are as follows:

  • Integration Management
  • Scope Management
  • Time Management
  • Cost Management
  • Quality Management
  • Human Resources Management
  • Communications Management
  • Risk Management
  • Procurement Management

Combined Skills

UNESCO UNICEF and Partnership for the 21st Century Skills

Combining the common skills from the UNESCO, UNICEF, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, we arrive at the following list of major skills, areas of knowledge, and abilities:

  • Communication skills
  • Negotiations, influencing, and persuasion skills
  • Empathy (the ability to understand from another perspective)
  • Cooperation, teamwork, and collaboration
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Ethics
  • Self-assessment and self-management
  • Time management and positive thinking

Additionally, let’s compare the combined UNESCO, UNICEF, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills list with the Knowledge Areas in the PMBOK® Guide.

Communication Skills

First on the combined list are communication skills. Communication skills form the backbone for the success of any project. In the PMBOK® Guide, communication skills take the forms of both written and oral communication, providing and receiving feedback, understanding and adapting to different cultures, and diversity in the workplace— all of which are skills considered by UNESCO, UNICEF, and the Partnership for 21st Century as critical in today’s work environment. One cannot effectively function in today’s workplace without good communication skills. Good communication skills are much more than simply being able to talk to someone at work or at school or send an e-mail or text message. Communication skills require training and education to be the most effective.

Negotiating, Influencing, and Persuasion Skills

Negotiating, influencing, and persuasion skills are next on the combined life skills list. These are likewise discussed in the PMBOK® Guide and are considered the cornerstones of good project management. Negotiating skills are a sine qua non in all sectors of procurement management. Without good negotiating skills project managers are left to the devices of others. Project managers need to negotiate for resources, time, and money and the same can be said of students today; they also need to be good negotiators to be successful in school or the workplace. In today’s competitive workplace, teamwork and the ability to negotiate go hand-in-hand. The ability to influence and persuade (or, as we might call it in management terms, to motivate and manage other employees) is a skill that is just as important to a new employee as it is to a seasoned project manager. These skills make up a large part of what we call human resource management within project management.


Let’s move on to empathy, third on the combined skills list. UNICEF defines empathy as “the ability to listen and understand another’s needs and circumstances and to express that understanding.” In a nutshell, isn’t that what project managers do every single day? Most would agree that demonstrating empathy is a key skill that every project manager must have. Project managers customarily strive to take another’s needs and circumstances and translate them into concrete actions. To be successful, shouldn’t our children learn this skill as well?

Teamwork, Cooperation, and Collaboration

Next on the list are teamwork, cooperation, and collaboration. These skills make a project manager, student, or a new employee a success or a failure faster than any other single set of skills. Learning how to work with others and be productive while doing so are critical skills for everyone and they are definitely twenty-first century life skills as well as crucial project management skills!

Problem Solving

Another project management skill set, as well as a twenty-first century life skill set, is critical thinking and problem solving. In the project management world, I suppose we could sum this up as the “integration management process.” This process begins by evaluating a given situation. Here, we consider such things as internal and external influences and gather the evidence needed to create our possible solutions. The process continues on to actually developing possible solutions and is followed by gaining consensus on a solution from those in charge or those in positions of authority. Last, we implement the agreed-upon solution. Are these skills any different whether we use them as life skills or as project management skills?


The next skill set to consider consists of ethics and social responsibility. After the last two economic recessions, what more can be said of ethics that has not already been said? In the PMBOK® Guide, an entire chapter is devoted to ethics. I am certain entire courses on ethics as a twenty-first century life skill could be taught in high schools, universities, and corporations. This skill transcends all businesses, industries, and cultures.


Self-assessment and self-management follow ethics in our skills list. Both are key skills, whether we are referring to life skills or project management skills. As project managers, self-assessments are invaluable in discovering issues regarding our projects or ourselves. As a life skill, self-assessment is invaluable in discovering things about our work, our work habits, and ourselves in general. In the final analysis, self-assessment as a life skill and self-assessment as a project management skill aren’t that much different.

Positive Thinking

Finally, time management and positive thinking as a life skill set include such activities as getting work done on time, scheduling events, and being punctual. Project managers embody these same skills (and more). Furthermore, time management is a core competency of a project manager. In fact, it is so important to project managers that the PMBOK® Guide devotes an entire chapter to it.

Current Programs

Current Worldwide 21st Century Programs

Washington State (USA)

The first pilot program at North Kitsap High School was completed in the 2nd quarter of 2010. It looks as though Washington State is going to adopt project management as a Career and Technical Skill starting in 2012. North Kitsap High School will be continuing the project management class in two high schools. The first pilot class was taught by PMI Puget Sound Chapter members and the Paulsboro Rotary Club and utilized PMI members as mentors. This year school district teachers will teach the course, with PMI members as mentors.

Central Ohio (USA)

A pilot program was started at a technical high school in August 2010.

Delaware Valley (USA)

This program will utilize a ‘club’ model, teaching project management life skills outside of the classroom. The pilot was started in September 2010 by a chapter volunteer at the Germantown Academy (city, state, USA), a local private high school. The current project leaders are planning on implementing this program with the Future Business Leaders Club, one of the high school’s extracurricular clubs (although the final decision regarding the choice of the club for the pilot project may change).


The high school pilot program started in May 2010 by PMI volunteers. The participants will be providing feedback and future plans for the class.

Sydney, Australia

This high school pilot program started in August 2010.

Milan, Italy

This primary school program was started in 2006 and is continuing. There are plans to implement a high school program in the fall of 2010. The materials created by the PMI Northern Italy Chapter are available in English, Spanish, French, and Italian and can be downloaded at no charge from the PMI Educational Foundation website,

Children International in the Dominican Republic

The high school pilot program was started in the Dominican Republic in 2nd quarter 2010, utilizing the Spanish translation of Project Management Skills for Life as the basis for the course. The local staff members of Children International have been trained, and classes for the students started in September 2010. The PM Skills for Life materials were translated by PMI volunteers who are also teaching the course. Project management has been integrated with a leadership curriculum created by Children International. The students receive a stipend to complete a community project after the course and will use their newly learned skills to complete the project. Local PMI members in the Dominican Republic are mentors for the students. If successful, this will be replicated in other Children International locations. The Spanish translations are available on the PMIEF website,

Honolulu, Hawaii (USA)

A pilot program was started in 3rd quarter 2010 at Kalani High School by PMI volunteers

Curitiba, Brazil

The pilot program was completed in Curitiba in April 2010, and the PMI members who facilitated the pilot will be providing lessons learned and materials from the course.

Zabrze, Poland

The program was piloted in a secondary Catholic school in Zabrze in 2010 by a business and economics teacher, and an additional PMI volunteer in Poland is translating the materials into Polish.

New York, New York (USA)

Starting in 2009, the local chapter has provided mentors in a Virtual Enterprise, International High School Program that teaches entrepreneurship through projects. An additional program in the area was piloted in the summer of 2010, and there are plans to start a middle school program in fall 2010.

Ongoing Programs

  • PMI Mile High Chapter (Denver, Colorado, USA) — in High School
  • PMI Northern Italy Chapter — Programs have been ongoing in Northern Italian elementary schools since 2006.
  • PMI KC Mid-America Chapter— Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy (middle school)


Clearly, it has been shown that there is a connection between project management and twenty-first century life skills. It would be hard to deny that project management skills and life skills are “two peas in the same pod.” In many ways, project management embodies twenty-first century life skills, so project management seems to be an excellent method by which to teach these same skills. I think it is safe to say that project management is a twenty-first century life skill.

So, you may ask, do schools teach these life skills in their normal academic curriculum? Sadly, it appears that most schools do not. Yes, we ask students to do class projects, negotiate, and work in teams, but rarely do we teach them how. Traditionally, these skills have been viewed as skills “you will pick up as you go along.” Today, schools spend most of their instructional time on reading, math, and other topics. Life skills get relegated to the category of “other” subjects and seldom receive the respect they deserve. However, project management, if taught as a part of the high school curriculum—or even as early as middle school or elementary school—may very well bridge this educational gap and give our children an advantage in tomorrow’s economic environment.

Cassner-Lotto, J. & Barrington, L. (2006). Are they really ready to work? The Conference Board, Inc, The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the Society for Human Resource Management. Retrieved from:

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) Fourth Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute

UNICEF (2004). Which skills are life skills? Retrieved from

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (2009). Retrieved from

©2010, John J. Byrne
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC



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