Simon Bartley, chief executive of UK Skills

I’d like to start off my column by taking you time travelling with me. Back to a time when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Gordon Brown was just the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

When mobile phones, if you had one, wouldn’t fit in your pocket and emails were still a couple of years away from transforming how we communicate.

The year is 1989 and crowds several thousand strong are at the NEC in Birmingham watching young people from all over the world working against the clock to complete set tasks. In front of you are bricklayers carefully but quickly laying brick upon brick. Nearby are plumbers at work and in the next hall you can hear the sound of the heavy machinery of the automotive competitions.

They’re taking part in the 30th WorldSkills Competition and among them is a team of young people from the UK. They are oblivious to the noise from the crowd and from the equipment and machinery of the competitions around them. Everywhere you look there is a competition taking place.

This was my first experience of WorldSkills and it was the last time the UK hosted the competition. My father had been involved with WorldSkills but even what he had told me couldn’t prepare me for the experience of being there.

It was then I caught the "WorldSkills bug". The ethos of the competition in promoting excellence in vocational skills and setting an international standard is one I firmly believe in, as I’m sure so do many of you.

Let’s move on to the future, to September this year. It’s the day of the opening ceremony for WorldSkills Calgary 2009 and Team UK are dressed up in their team uniforms with their special team enamel badges, waiting to march onto the stage. It is a long wait as the UK has to wait for 44 other countries to parade in first.

It’s the 40th WorldSkills Competition and maybe some of you are in the crowd waiting to cheer them when they march on stage. For those of you who can’t be there, you may be following the team on which is providing regular updates on Team UK.

A lot will happen over the next four days of competition until everyone gathers again for the closing ceremony and to find out who has won the coveted medals.

A lot hangs on this event. We want to improve on our medal tally of one gold, one silver and two bronzes from the last event in Japan in 2007. We also want to improve the UK’s ranking amongst the 51 member countries by getting into the top ten.

All this is crucial preparation for the 41st WorldSkills competition which will be held here in the UK in a little over two and a half year’s time. WorldSkills London 2011 will be the biggest ever skills competition in terms of both the expected number of competitors and the number of countries taking part.

At WorldSkills Calgary 2009 I expect to see a well trained UK team that is prepared for the challenge ahead, both in terms of technical ability and the personal skills like problem solving and time management that can make all the difference in winning a medal or none at all.

Team UK is going to need all the training we can give them because I foresee it being a tough competition for our young skills champions.

For a start, the standard at each WorldSkills always seems to be that much higher than it was at the previous competition. We are constantly improving how we provide training to our competitors but so are the other countries that compete.

Team UK will also face a lot of attention from people here at home. This is the last team to compete before WorldSkills London 2011 and there are a lot of hopes riding on their performance.

I believe Team UK will do us proud and give us some reasons to celebrate. We certainly need some celebrations this year.

WorldSkills is crucial in a year like 2009. Like 1989, the economy is not going well and skills are taking second place to survival.

The young people who will compete in Canada will be a reminder to us all of the benefits of investing in skills even in these difficult economic times.

How we place against the rest of the world based on average team score will be a good indication of how the UK’s skills are faring against those of our global competitors.

Even with the economy in recession, I believe we cannot afford to ignore the demographic changes that are only a few years away as the baby boomer generation retires from the workforce.

As these competitors go back to their places of work after the competition ends in September, they will be quite different from the young people they were even in January this year.

The training and development they’ve received will place them months if not years ahead of their peers. The experience of competing will give them an invaluable boost in confidence. Like WorldSkills competitors before them, they will be promoted, become supervisors, start their own businesses, or move onto management.

Many of them will want to stay involved in regional and national skills competitions as judges or helpers. They want to give something back because they know how much they’ve benefited from the time and support that was given to them. They know the opportunities that taking part in WorldSkills opened up to them and they want to help the young people who follow them.

In that way they will be playing their part in passing on skills and inspiring the next generation of the UK’s skilled men and women.

Simon Bartley, chief executive of UK Skills


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