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Team UK has the golden touch – but we need to maintain our competitive edge

Tuesday, 24 Oct 2017

Dr Neil Bentley, Chief Executive, WorldSkills UK

What an incredible experience. WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017 – the Skills Olympics – brought out the best of British in our team of 34 apprentices and students. Every single member of the team did us proud and I am beyond elated to report back on our medal haul: a gold, and a special mention to Kaiya Swain, three silvers, three bronzes, 13 medallions of excellence and a top 10 finish.

This was a story of Team UK – from all four home nations – punching above its weight; the smallest team inside the top 10 maybe, but when it came to the size of the heart in the fiercest skills competition in the world, no one could question our young people’s attitude, determination and will-to-win. Before we left for Abu Dhabi, DfE Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, Anne Milton, called on our team to reach for something deep inside themselves to spur them onto success. Well, they found it in Abu Dhabi and I was delighted that Anne was able to see for herself the fantastic celebration of skills on display. The sheer scale of the Skills Olympics is breathtaking and it’s vital that the UK is right in the race, showing that our young people have what it takes to win.

While we were out in the UAE, the OECD published its latest survey of the UK economy. It told a familiar story: our productivity isn’t up to scratch. UK productivity trails the G7 average – and the gap is getting wider. Unless we arrest this decline, there are real concerns about living standards, especially with real wages in a downward trend. How do we do this? We do it through skills – but what the OECD survey also shows is that over a quarter of UK workers have only low skills, which, as the OECD spell out, ‘holds back labour productivity and job quality’. Much of the commentary on the OECD’s report centred on its analysis of the impact of Brexit. I don’t want to add another commentary on this front, but what I will say is that whatever Brexit settlement we land on, we are going to need more high quality skills and fewer low quality skills.

That’s why it’s really encouraging that Anne Milton has said she wants to take her experience of Abu Dhabi and spread it throughout the UK. I want all young people thinking about careers choices right now to have the same opportunities that Team UK has had. Kaiya and the rest of the team will be going into schools in the coming weeks and months, sharing their experiences to help realise this. They are a vital part of the high quality skills culture we need to embed. 

When the dust has settled on a Skills Olympics, it’s natural to look at the medals table and compare your results to those of other nations – that’s what competition is all about. It is a major source of pride for the UK to have retained its top 10 ranking from two years ago at WorldSkills São Paulo. But we need also to cast our sights upwards as part of this drive for higher quality skills. There is no question: the higher up the table you finish, the stronger the reflection on the quality of your skills. At the next Skills Olympics, in Kazan, Russia in 2019 and for Shanghai, China in 2021, I want the UK to maintain its top 10 position. Other countries are investing more in their performance at WorldSkills and so must we – because if we stand still, we will fall behind.

Looking at the winners in Abu Dhabi, right at the top is China with 15 golds, not far behind is Switzerland with 11 golds, Korea with 8 golds, Brazil with 7, Russia with 6, with Chinese Taipei, Austria, France and Japan also highly placed. These nations all have one thing in common: they are prioritising technical education and investing more for success internationally. They are the nations we have to measure ourselves against. With governments across the UK focused on apprenticeships and technical careers, and with T levels and the upcoming careers strategy in England, we’ve got the basis for realising the skills revolution that DfE Secretary of State Justine Greening has talked about so passionately in recent months. Team UK are the leaders on the front-line of the revolution – so let’s help them support the UK in sharpening its competitive edge.

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