Developing Wales as a vocational economy
A young person I know has just started a course at a college in Wales. His work was judged so good by a visiting employer that he was offered an apprenticeship in brick laying. After two months at college and aged 16 he is earning £170 per week and being equipped with the skills that will last a lifetime. His sibling stayed on for two years in school sixth form to take academic subjects but left with modest results and is now unemployed.
I reflected on the circumstances of these two young people when I recently visited the annual World Skills UK Show held in Birmingham.
Attended by over 80,000 visitors including Ken Skates, Deputy Minister for Skills, the event is a showcase for a huge and diverse range of vocational skills. Hotly contested skills competitions – WorldSkills UK Finals in the main – brought together the best young people in the UK to compete for medals in around 60 disciplines, ranging from aeronautical engineering and aromatherapy to web design and welding.
The 60 Welsh entries (out of a total of 600) did their country proud at a prestigious awards ceremony. They achieved 18 medals, of which six were gold.
Side by side with the competitions were around 40 showcase events; an opportunity for the 80,000 enthusiastic visitors to practise their skills and try out state of modern and cutting edge technology.
The Welsh Government, along with ColegauCymru and the NTfW, gave strong support to the Skills Show. Indeed, the collaborative ‘Wales’ stand was busy throughout the three days as visitors saw at first hand the high quality skills on offer in colleges in Wales.
The success of the Show brought home to me some several truths.
First: the key importance of skills.
Our education system is often too dominated by academic subjects. We want the best youngsters to have the opportunity to move into vocational subjects. Just as they do in Germany and other high performing countries. The Huw Evans report on Qualifications in Wales has been one of several authoritative reports which have emphasised this point. We can no longer see vocational subjects as second best to the academic route.
Second: we need to invest in skills development for the longer term.
Wales has a rich industrial history and a potential high quality workforce. A key lesson from previous recessions is that Wales must avoid having a shortage of skills to take up jobs when the economy picks up.
Third: our vocational system must be geared towards producing high quality graduates who can compete in a global economy.
Employers must be actively involved in all stages of our education system.
Fourth: we need a clear vocational progression route.
The GCSE/A level/university route has the virtue of being easily understood by parents, teachers and by many employers. But how many teachers can advise 14 year old students on apprenticeships, higher level apprenticeships and foundation degrees? The careers service has a crucial role in working closely with schools to ensure that impartial and independent advice is given to young people so that they make choices that suit their own needs and circumstances.
What we perhaps need is for Wales to become a ‘vocational economy’, taking on board the best of other successful economies. The enthusiasm of those young visitors to the Skills Show needs to be channelled into a future that will benefit them and the Welsh economy.