I asked my students yesterday about 21st century skills. We were working on how to find sources for a research paper, so I said that would be our hypothetical topic.  They had never heard the phrase, so I asked them to write down five things that they thought would be useful skills for working in the current century.

They listed first aid and gardening, computer skills, a good work ethic, tolerance, languages, communication skills, financial management skills. They seem to think it’s a tossup whether they will be on space stations or grubbing about in the aftermath of a total collapse of civilization. Ozarque had also emailed to suggest that survival skills were what was really going to be needed.

Then I got the projector going and showed them how to get articles from the library database and how to search effectively at Google. Things began to deteriorate. I had them practice doing citations. They started talking in little clots. One put his head down on the table. One got up and left. I said, “I know this isn’t thrilling, but the faster we get it done the faster we can move on to something more interesting.”

There were mutterings. I was very glad I had been observed on Tuesday instead of on Thursday as planned. I may have said so.

I called out, “You all understand the assignment for Tuesday, right?” over the hubbub as they left.

The projector. It was all the fault of the projector.

My Aussies left me some terrific feedback at oDesk, mentioning that I had done their job in 1/5 the time other providers had estimated. I’m thinking that it may just be that people who are willing to work for very low wages don’t feel any great need to work fast. They know they’re being exploited, so why should they make big efforts for their exploiters?

On the other hand, it is conceivable that I’m special in the sense that Friedman uses for the word. Not unique, but being able to write SEO copy both well and fast could be a special skill. When we were talking about 21st century skills, I showed the students The World Is Flat as an example of a physical book we could use for our imaginary paper, so they could practice citing a book. I told them about Friedman’s idea of the three kinds of workers who would have jobs in the 21st century.

“We can’t be the cheapest,” I pointed out. “We live in the United States, so we can never compete on price. So the three kinds of American workers who’ll survive, according to this book, are workers who have to be physically present, very special workers, and workers who can be very flexible.”

They had trouble grasping the idea of in situ workers. “Like manual laborers?” one asked. I agreed, but also pointed out that personal services and health care required physical proximity. One came up with resort management, which seemed like a good example. The idea of being especially good at something seemed to depress them. I shared Friedman’s example of Michael Jordan, but that distracted them. I will be happy to share all their random thoughts on Michael Jordan with you some time. It was like the children’s sermon at church.

It does seem as though being special is unattainable. It is like the advice in Do You Matter? about not allowing yourself to be commoditized. At oDesk, people are looking for human workers as commodities. They aren’t looking for the one special person for the job, but for quick turnaround at low prices. It is possible that being really fast is special enough for me to be competitive there. It’s also possible that my willingness to work in a place that is perceived as an electronic slave market makes me look like more of a commodity to private clients.

Still, adaptability is available to us all. The students perked up at the thought of being really flexible. Not enough that they managed to come up with good examples of thesis statements for the topic, but they did learn MLA style citations, and we all survived, so I’m not complaining.