With headlines screaming ‘skills shortages’, you could be forgiven that I was catching up with recent news here, but these were the stories dominating the recent SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference.

It has been widely reported that the skills gap in America is widening and that over the next decade, 3.4 million new jobs in the manufacturing sector alone will become available. However in a report compiled by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute in America it was stated that of those jobs, 2 million will go unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers. And it is not just the manufacturing sector that is suffering. Health care, architecture and engineering and customer service sectors are feeling the effect of the skills gap.

Sound like a familiar situation?

Similarly, America has turned to apprenticeships to solve the skills shortage issue. It has revived its programme across all states, re-educating employers and young people about the benefits of completing an apprenticeship. But this in itself has raised another issue, and one which employers and training providers in the UK will identify and sympathise with.

There is no doubt that the current apprenticeship offering on both sides of the Atlantic is successful in teaching young people the technical skills to meet industry demands. This was certainly evident at the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference, which like our own Skills Show hosts the National Finals of America’s skills competitions. But speaking with leaders at the Conference, many felt that there should also be more focus on developing basic employability skills, like time management and problem-solving. It’s a conversation I have had many times with employers based here in the UK.

I was invited to SkillsUSA by WorldSkills International to see how member countries are using competition activity to not only address skills shortages but also to develop the wider employability skills that employers are crying out for.

At WorldSkills UK, we know that participating in skills competition activity is vital in developing the ‘soft’ skills that are important for any job role. In a recent survey of competitors that took part in our competitions in 2015, over 80% felt competing had increased their confidence, team working, ability to work under pressure and time management.

However, what really impressed me about the work of SkillsUSA was how far the organisation went in offering its members (which includes high school students) support in developing those ‘softer’ skills that employers are desperately looking for in their apprentices. As well as access to specialist technical training, advice is given to members in public speaking, speech writing, travel protocol and even table etiquette. The result? Not just an apprentice but a future leader who is confident enough to take command in any situation. I know this because I met many of them. I was struck by just how mature they were, a real credit to the schools, colleges and businesses they were representing. It is this rounded approach to developing an apprentice that will help overcome one of the biggest challenges faced by many countries in ensuring training programmes are available to young people from all backgrounds.  

On 15 July, it is World Youth Skills Day. Officially recognised by the United Nations, the aim of the day is to raise awareness of the importance of skills in addressing the challenges of youth unemployment in countries around the world. My time at SkillsUSA has reinforced my belief that to be successful, this focus must not only be on teaching our young people technical skills, but also those personal skills that are so important in helping them become the successful leaders of the future.

Dr Neil Bentley, Chief Executive, WorldSkills UK

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