Figure 1. Students complete their task in the middle of the competition floor, in full view of all the attendees.
Every now and then you hit on something that makes sense.
In 1946, Spain desperately needed more skilled workers to help drive its economic recovery. That’s when the country’s education leaders had a breakthrough. They realized they needed not just a better vocational system, but better students, too. They also realized that, to get there, they needed to incentivize a broader group of stakeholders: youth, their parents, teachers and prospective employers.
Competition, these leaders felt, was the best lever to drive organic change throughout the entire system of vocational training. They didn’t want to just train more kids, they wanted to raise standards, both in quality of skill and in reputation — what it meant, culturally and professionally, to be a skilled tradesperson.
So, they created an international competition for vocational skills (Figure 1). At first it was an association of countries and then it became a non-governmental organization (NGO), WorldSkills (www.worldskills.org). They formed technical committees to set standards for each of the trades-skills that students could compete in, and then they grew that list of skills from a half-dozen to the 46 different categories hosted today — everything from CNC milling to bricklaying, robotics, hairstyling, and healthcare (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Final projects from the costuming competition were displayed for all to see. How could this not make a skills competition exciting?
Today, more than 65 countries send more than 1,000 students to the global competition every two years. In between are countless local, regional, national, and super-regional competitions. The global competition opens with all 65 teams parading into a stadium, carrying their national flags Olympics-style, and it closes with an awards ceremony that lifts the roof (Figure 3).
Now, flip from the glossy brochure to the viewpoint of a lean manufacturer such as Fluke. My first impressions of WorldSkills came from businesspeople. It was a good idea, they told me. Certainly we needed to encourage students to go into technical disciplines, and it was a great chance to integrate new technology into training programs. But, they whispered, why did their skill category have to get stuck next to the hairdressers during the competition?
And supporting education “feels good,” they said, but really, what can you prove at the end of the day? What have you, as a manufacturer, tangibly accomplished by supporting a skills competition?
Well, let’s start with this: Fluke was founded just two years after WorldSkills, and it takes skill to know how to use a Fluke test tool. In those 65 years, hundreds of thousands of students have participated in WorldSkills competitions. How much of today’s customer base do we potentially owe to WorldSkills driving excellence in the very markets and customers we sell to?
Figure 3. The global competition with an awards ceremony that lifts the roof.
Fluke became a founding global industry partner (GIP) of WorldSkills about 10 years ago. We support nine skills areas at the biannual global competitions: electrical installation, HVAC, electronics, polymechanics/automation, industrial controls, autobody repair, automotive technology, aircraft maintenance, and the manufacturing team challenge. Today there are 12 global industry partners, including Cisco and Dermologica and St. Gobain — brands you wouldn’t normally put together. But when you sit their education directors down as a group, their strategies align to a fascinating degree. Every GIP will tell you they are not only doing the “right thing” by supporting WorldSkills, but that it makes business sense to do so.
When industry experts mentor skills competitions, guide standards development, and help teams to train, we’re helping schools align to industry needs. We’re helping to create a more highly skilled workforce that’s a better fit for our marketplace. You know that workforce “skills gap” you read about all the time? There are so many contributing factors, from technology and industry changes to retirement demographics to the worldwide recession, but the upshot is that we’re back at Spain in 1946: we don’t have enough people with the right experience and the right skills to do the work that industry needs.
Maybe by this point I’ve sold you on supporting skills development. But why are the hairdressing students creating their designs right next to the information technology techs solving network conflicts? Two reasons. One, every country is at a different workforce development stage and has different targets. Particular skills matter more in some countries than in others, but if they matter in enough places, they rate a spot on the global competition. Two, because 200,000 students ages 10 to 18 from the host country get bussed in to experience a skills competition the size of six football fields, with DIY stations for every skill and country. Visitors don’t just see WorldSkills, they do it. The enormity, excitement, and importance of it all lights a serious fire in those kids. Students walk away understanding a whole variety of skills they’d never thought about before. Now, they have options. They might even find the answer to “what do I want to be when I grow up?”
STEM education is doing a great job at re-focusing K-12 education on science, technology, engineering and math. The next step is looking at where those kids go when they graduate. It isn’t just about MIT grads and software engineers. It’s about encouraging technical skills development for any student with interest and aptitude. And WorldSkills is making that connection happen.
Figure 4. WorldSkills just hosted the 42nd global competition, in Leipzig, Germany.
I also had the fortune to present alongside my WorldSkills global industry partners from Siemens, Festo, St. Gobain, Lincoln Electric, AutoDesk, and Cisco, on the impact of technology on future skills. See that overlay of industry+skills at www.youtube.com/watch?v=-akqvlBi-BE.
But don’t take my word for it.
WorldSkills just hosted the 42nd global competition, in Leipzig, Germany (Figure 4). More than 3,500 international participants attended, along with the entire student vocational population of Germany. See the work of more than 1,000 journalists, photographers, and TV reporters who covered WorldSkills Leipzig this year at www.flickr.com/photos/worldskills and at www.youtube.com/user/WorldSkillsTV. And see the medal winners and country rankings at http://medals.worldskills.org/medals/2013.