Out and about last weekend I couldn’t help but listen in to the conversation that a group of young people were having as they stood behind me in a queue at a checkout. They were talking about how they wanted to be like various ‘celebrities’ when they got older (I have to admit I didn’t recognise the names but I’m reliably informed that the people that they were discussing as role models appear in ‘The Only Way is Essex’, ‘Made in Chelsea’ and various other similar TV shows!) The young people were talking about how they wanted to emulate these celebrities with their own fashion and beauty lines and ownership of bars and clubs.
While I recognise that it’s not surprising that young people see these media personalities as something to aspire to, I can’t help but feel sad that these young people aren’t seeing people like Rianne Chester, Gary Doyle or Sam Turner as their role models instead, and that they are not aspiring to be like Rebecca Wilson, Shayne Hadland or Edward Harrington.
The sad reality is that most of us will have no idea as to who these people are – and they should be household names.
These young professionals, alongside Jonathan Gill, Matthew Beesley and Christopher Bailie, are officially the world’s best and most skilled individuals who undoubtedly have fantastic careers ahead of them.
Rianne, Gary, Sam and the others mentioned above represented our country at WorldSkills back in August. Competing amongst 1,200 young people from across the world, they and others from the UK were demonstrating the world-beating expertise that they have developed, during their relatively short careers, in everything from Aircraft Maintenance to Beauty Therapy, Landscape Gardening, Electrical Installation and IT Software Solutions.
The UK won three gold, four silver and two bronze medals plus medallions of excellence – but just two months later it’s fair to say that all of those winners, who are the best in the world at their jobs and have skills that our economy desperately needs now and in the future, are largely anonymous.
Aside from a brief appearance on BBC Breakfast and some newspaper coverage during the week of the competition, there has been virtually no media coverage of these highly successful young people. And that’s a real shame because their success was a real opportunity to inspire millions of young people to see how developing skills can give you real opportunities both as a young person and into your future.
We often hear talk of a need for parity of esteem between learning pathways, between apprenticeships and degrees. So why as a nation aren’t we shouting from the rooftops about the achievements of these talented young people who have pursued non-academic, technical routes?
Other countries in Europe plus those in Asia and North and South America regard their winners and all of their competitors as people to be incredible proud of. They champion their representatives as stars and reward them as such. They send hundreds of people as a support team for their competitors including high profile government ministers and presidents of their countries biggest employers. They reward competitors with big sums of cash, houses and cars. Their pictures appear on billboards nationwide. They have their education fees paid for them and on their return attend high profile receptions with their heads of state.
In the UK we do none of this and we are missing a massive trick. If young people and those who influence them saw the success that skills training and taking on the challenge these types careers can bring, we could really start to change perceptions and break down the barriers that prevent more young people being inspired to develop the skills that employers desperately need.
The need to change those perceptions and make young people and their parents and teachers understand that there are great alternatives to academic pathways which are challenging but which offer so many rewards, is as great as ever.
So we really must champion those who are pursuing these much needed skills and careers and use their example to show that technical and vocational careers and pathways are not ‘risky’, ‘2nd class’ or ‘easier’.
Showcasing real examples of highly successful young people is key. Just a few weeks ago I was at a SSAT event where one of the speakers was Christine Hodgson, Chair of The Careers & Enterprise Company and Chairperson of Capgemini UK. In addition to talking about the importance of Apprenticeships to Capgemini, Christine also introduced one of her employees who was on a Higher Apprenticeship. This very articulate, professional young person spoke with passion about the battle she had had to convince both her parents and teachers that she was making the right decision to do an apprenticeship instead of a full-time university degree. Everyone in her school went to university – no-one had ever done an Apprenticeship – it just wasn’t the ‘done thing’. Two years on with a very good job, a good salary and studying for a degree with her employer paying her tuition fees, she has returned to her former school and has inspired a number of sixth formers to apply for Apprenticeships, this time with the blessing of the school.
So when we get the opportunity to showcase successful young people who are pursuing strong careers and developing the skills our economy relies on, we must make sure that we make the most of it – and once we’ve done that keep the momentum going. Endorsement by the Prime Minister, Chancellor etc. in a speech here and there, along with employers talking about how their Apprentices are good for their business is one thing. But to inspire young people we need to learn important lessons from how these individuals are promoted in other countries and make the publicity for these real-life positive role models more ‘in your face’. At the moment we’re simply not telling a good enough story and we are we’re not telling it loudly enough. Wouldn’t it be great if young people were as familiar with the names of these young skills champions, as they are the celebrities from TOWIE and MIC?
I returned from holiday recently into an airport and was greeted by huge wall displays in the baggage reclaim hall showing young sportspeople, at various UK landmarks, showing off their skills. We should be doing that with our WorldSkills competitors and our Apprentices more widely – celebrate them, show the nation and visitors how important they are to us.
In about a week’s time the road towards the next WorldSkills starts with places to represent the UK in 2017 being contested at the national finals, held as part of the Skills Show 2015 at the NEC in Birmingham. As well as a chance for the young people who are competing to show off their talents, the Skills Show also gives schools the opportunity to let their students explore and try out skills and careers in everything from bricklaying to robotics, Make-up SFX to artistic bakery. Plus there will also be hundreds of employers telling young people about the skills they need them to be developing.
I’ll be visiting the Skills Show again this year and I know that as I watch the competitors painstakingly attending to what they are crafting, designing, building, programming or delivering, I’ll be watching some of the best young people in the world. I just hope that we do more when our successful young people compete against the rest of Europe in Gothenburg next year and against the world in Abu Dhabi in 2017, to maximise the opportunity to inspire more young people to develop skills that will be so fulfilling and valuable for both them and our future economy.