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What business wants: delivering the skills our employers need

Dr Neil Bentley, Chief Executive, WorldSkills UK

Tuesday, 06 Nov 2018

The CBI/Pearson annual education and skills report is the authoritative survey of British business opinion. This year’s edition, Educating for the Modern World, which has just been released, is based on the views of nearly 400 businesses and trade associations representing over 28,000 employees from all sectors of the economy. It gives us the most comprehensive assessment of business sentiment towards skills, and its findings are required reading for all of us involved in delivering the talent pipeline of young people from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that is the lifeblood of British business.

The headline coming out of this year’s report represents a paradox: for the first time since 2014, three-quarters of businesses expect to increase the number of high-skilled roles over the coming years; but two-thirds are concerned that there will be a lack of sufficiently skilled people to fill them. For young people today, this is great news: there are going to be plenty of opportunities in the years ahead to find the kinds of interesting, rewarding jobs that they seek. What we have to ensure, to turn these opportunities into the reality of long-term careers, is that the concerns of business are addressed by developing an army of highly-skilled young people fully equipped to grasp these opportunities. And I think that through working with employers, training providers and colleges, WorldSkills UK is uniquely placed to do that by helping address three key challenges – excellence, productivity and technology.

First, excellence. As the CBI/Pearson report makes clear, the UK ‘needs a world class academic and technical education system now more than ever to prepare young people for a rapidly changing world and labour market’. Through our training for Team UK, we are at the centre of demonstrating what world-class means in both theory and practice. Our proven and tested methodology helps develop both skillset and mindset in the young people who represent us at the international level, giving them the world-class tools they need to compete and win. We saw this yet again in September at the European skills championships held in Hungary, when another impressive haul of medals for Team UK resulted in a top ten finish. We are an established ‘top ten’ nation globally alongside China, Korea, Russia and Brazil in the WorldSkills benchmark. WorldSkills UK’s vital role as a developer of world-class talent is clear. And that’s why we are working to support more businesses learn from our success and help address the second point – productivity.

Nearly three-quarters of businesses surveyed by CBI and Pearson cite productivity as the key driver for upskilling their workforces. Currently, we are behind the curve: it takes the UK five days to produce what our rivals in Germany and the USA can deliver in four. Arresting this embedded trend of lagging productivity is key if we are to make the most of the fourth industrial revolution and the potential it offers through AI and robotics. To respond to this challenge, WorldSkills UK is developing a “Productivity Lab”. This will draw out our experience and know-how on delivering world-class excellence. We will bring together research, knowledge and international best practice that demonstrates what we and the businesses with which we work can attest: accelerating young people’s development through skills competitions boosts productivity. We will build a unique productivity partnership with business by developing new training offers and insights.

And this will be increasingly aligned with our third point – technology. The reason for this year’s CBI/Pearson report having the ‘modern world’ as its theme is clearly reflected when looking at business’s priority for young people’s learning: STEM and digital. Respectively,  82% and 66% of businesses cite these two crucial areas as being utmost priorities to the future skills needs of their workforces. At WorldSkills UK we get this, and we have already been talking with our business partners in engineering and construction about helping address their needs. It’s also why over half of our skills competitions are now in STEM and digital sectors and we are getting into more areas like cloud computing, cyber security, digital rail tech and lab tech. The UK finals of our competitions take place in just over a week’s time at the NEC Birmingham as part of the UK’s biggest and best showcase for skills and careers, WorldSkills UK LIVE. According to the CBI/Pearson report, ‘exposure to the hands-on application of STEM knowledge can help foster greater appreciation of its importance’. That’s why LIVE is built around giving young people from across the UK the tangible experiences that bring to life the worlds of digital and tech. In our FutureTech zone we will be working with partners including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, BAE, Rolls Royce and others to showcase the very latest in Fourth Industrial Revolution thinking and practice. And we are hosting a Tech Summit for our business and education partners including Balfour Beatty, Redrow, Morgan Sindall, HS2 and Merlin Entertainments, to discuss meeting the challenges employers are worrying about. Places are still available for Saturday 17 November, so if you have not already done so, be one of the 70,000+ who will join us in the West Midlands next week by registering to attend.

So our message to businesses is simple: working with WorldSkills UK can help address the challenges of achieving world-class excellence, boosting productivity and harnessing technology. Get in touch to find out more about our Productivity Lab, to visit WorldSkills UK LIVE at the NEC next week and if your apprentices want the chance to represent the UK at the Skills Olympics in China in 2021. We’d love to hear from you.