Use skills contests to chart a course beyond Brexit

15th June 2018 at 00:00
The further education sector should embrace European competition as a platform to champion homegrown talent, argues WorldSkills UK chief executive Neil Bentley

Last month, WorldSkills UK announced the team of 22 young women and men from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who will be competing in EuroSkills – Europe’s largest skills competition – in Budapest in September.

Although participation in EuroSkills is independent of European Union membership, the prospect of Brexit means that this EuroSkills competition will be the UK’s last as a member of the EU. We should therefore be thinking more about how this international stress test of our skills system can help us to map out a pathway beyond Brexit in terms of our future economic development.

UK participation in international skills competitions is the result of an investment partnership between governments, businesses and skills sector leaders from across the home nations – and WorldSkills UK is the convening platform that brings this partnership together to deliver results.

International experience

Our government partners see the platform as a way of benchmarking how our skills systems across the UK are performing against our European economic competitors. Our corporate partners use the competition methodology to better understand how to drive continuous improvement in their training to achieve higher standards, boost productivity and remain competitive.

Meanwhile our education partners understand that the platform is a showcase for young talent trained by the very best of the UK’s skills sector, creating role models who inspire other young people to follow in their footsteps.

Embedding learning from all this international experience matters if we are to seize the leadership opportunity for the skills sector to help prepare the UK nations for a successful future beyond Brexit. The international skills competitions platform can help make a powerful contribution in three ways.

First, we can help champion the focus on skills, inward investment and trade. Inward investors keep telling us that the ready supply of highly skilled talent is key to maintaining the investment in existing operations and attracting further investment. Ensuring that the UK is seen as an attractive place in which to invest and do business is vital and provides the foundations from which to strike further trade deals.

The skills sector needs to take its place at the heart of – and lead – this debate. The WorldSkills international platforms at European and global levels, with forthcoming competitions in Russia in 2019 and China in 2021, are major opportunities to show what we are capable of.

This is not just about maintaining a top 10 medal performance in the skills benchmark tables, it will also send a message about the UK’s preparedness for investment to the ministers and business leaders from around the world who attend these events.

Second, we can help to maintain investor and business confidence about impending skills shortages in key sectors such as hospitality, construction and engineering. We have a role to play in keeping the focus on delivering consistently high-quality skills in these sectors to support tourism, infrastructure upgrades and house building.

Of course, much relies on public policy drivers and regulatory frameworks in helping to attract investment, but sending a strong signal that the skills sector is preparing the ground with much-needed talent can help put sector leaders in pole position. WorldSkills UK competition performance nationally and internationally in these key skill areas can add weight to this argument.

Third, we can help to create a positive narrative about the future to provide optimism for young people about how the development of new technologies will provide new job opportunities. In engineering and construction alone, automation and digitisation are causing business leaders to ask questions about where the new skills they need are going to come from to maintain jobs and investment across the UK. The absence of a loud enough debate from us within the sector is deafening.

Thriving skills base

WorldSkills UK is convening its business and education partners to help facilitate better understanding of the pace of change, the new disciplines required and the new skills that are needed. We are also introducing new skills competitions in line with the UK Industrial Strategy to help maintain a focus on future international competitiveness in areas such cybersecurity, cloud computing and digital rail.

We need to demonstrate that the UK is a world-class place to do business. Investment will be made if governments and businesses see a thriving future-focused skills base.

WorldSkills UK partners have done a good job of supporting this through international skills competitions in recent years, including finishing ahead of Germany in the benchmark medal tables. But other major nations globally are investing more in technical skills to boost economic performance. If we don’t invest, we will stand still. And standing still means that we will fall behind.

So it’s up to us to seize the opportunity for the skills sector to lead the debate. WorldSkills UK stands ready to play its part.

Neil Bentley is chief executive of WorldSkills UK and former deputy director-general of the CBI

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