WorldSkills: Inspiring world-class technical education
As Team UK heads home from a successful WorldSkills 2017 in Abu Dhabi, Carole Stott explains why WorldSkills matters and the difference it makes to learners, providers and employers.
There are three standout reasons why WorldSkills competitions are so important to the UK. First, they are all about skills, and as business leaders, government ministers, economists and others are lining up to remind us, skills will be more critical than ever in a post-Brexit UK. Second, UK skills need to be world class if we are to compete successfully with other leading economies; and while ‘world class’ is a much overused phrase, WorldSkills UK can genuinely claim to demonstrate verified world-class standards. And, third, the UK needs to build relationships across the globe, and WorldSkills sees the UK as a key player in a community of skills which operates in over 60 countries across all continents.
For the uninitiated, WorldSkills UK (WSUK) organises the Skills Show, the UK’s biggest skills event, and brings young people and apprentices from around the country together to compete in international skills competitions such as WorldSkills, often described as the ‘Skills Olympics’. We have just returned from the world finals in Abu Dhabi where the UK entered 34 competitors in 30 skills, ranging from aircraft maintenance, cooking, and cyber security to mechanical engineering, restaurant service, welding and web design. Our 34 young apprentices and trainees came back with a medal haul of 20, placing the UK in tenth place out of 59 competing countries.
To help make this happen, WSUK has built partnerships across all parts of the system: leaders, HR directors and training staff from businesses across the UK; leaders and practitioners in colleges and training providers; stakeholders, including sector bodies, awarding bodies, local enterprise partnerships and combined authorities. Government too plays a key part in providing funding support and creating the policy framework that supports success. All play their part in helping our young people and businesses to succeed locally, nationally and on the world stage.
For business, the benefits are all about raising the standards of skills to achieve premium products and services in order to have a direct impact on business success. World-class skills not only improve the quality, efficiency and productivity of a business, but also encourage inward investment. Whether you are a small business that is part of a supply chain or a large multi-national considering where to locate your business infrastructure, the supply of skills will be key to success. A strategy that supports genuine world-class skills requires trainers and educators who see and understand what world-class looks like; who can learn with and from the best in the rest of the world, and can take those standards back into the business. The benefits to staff, training managers and to the business as a whole are clear.
The benefits to the students and apprentices who take part are just as clear and equally profound. Of course, taking part in such competitions is a wonderful experience and gives our best and brightest the chance to accelerate their careers, to share what they know and to learn from others. But the benefits go beyond the experience of individual students, with successful students becoming role models for others in technical education. There is no doubt that winning medals and becoming a national or world champion in your skill does much to raise the prestige of technical skills and careers. WorldSkills champions really do inspire others and their success creates aspiration in technical education as a whole.
The impact of WorldSkills competitions on colleges and other providers is comparable to that on businesses and students. For staff, there can be no better CPD for keeping up with industry standards. As in business, WorldSkills competitions can be an important element of a workforce development strategy. And for colleges and training providers, participation in WorldSkills UK demonstrates the high standards and success of their students and staff to business and prospective students and can be used to support improved recruitment and achievement.
All of this should matter to leaders in the sector, as they develop their thinking about local, regional and national needs and how to respond to them, particularly given the changes that Brexit is sure to bring in terms of skills demand and supply. The gap in higher-level technical and professional skills is a widely acknowledged problem in the UK. This is exactly the territory in which WSUK operates. All parts of the system can participate and learn from the WSUK model to improve standards and quality. Businesses and training managers have used competitions to inform apprenticeship standards and develop new qualifications. There is scope for a more systematic approach which would benchmark and align standards across apprenticeships and T-levels more widely. Leaders and staff in colleges and training providers can ensure that their staff and their students understand and can reach these standards.
Of course, not everyone can represent their country and compete on the world stage. But WSUK runs a competition model that starts with local and builds to regional, national, European and then world finals. Colleges and training providers, employers, students and apprentices can participate at the level and stage appropriate for them. They will reap benefits all along the way.
The UK was a founding member of WorldSkills International and has been a continuous force in its development. Playing such an important role in the success of these international skills competitions speaks volumes about our place in the world. It demonstrates our commitment to being a global player and an engaged partner. It signals how much we value technical skills and perhaps most importantly demonstrates the prestige we accord to these skills and to our young people who follow these technical career paths.
Carole Stott is Chair of WorldSkills UK and Chair of the Association of Colleges