Skills Festival

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Richard Hease called and asked if I was free the next weekend to complete a tender for a new event. Manpower, the recruitment and workforce management organisation, had allocated some of its millennium-event funding to a show that would feature skills-training and apprenticeships. It was to have links with the World Skills Olympics.

The World Skills Olympics, now WorldSkills, is a biennial event developed originally by Spain and Portugal to showcase and challenge those under 23 in a raft of different industries. Today some 79 countries are involved, my memory is it was around 40 countries back then.

The UK had once run the ‘Olympics’ at the NEC in Birmingham and Margaret Thatcher had attended to hand out the prizes. Her speech stressed that the awards would serve to illustrate those countries fully invested in the skills of their youth, then had to preside over the fact that Britain had won only one award, a bronze in hairdressing! She was reputedly ‘spitting blood’ on the long car journey back to No 10.

The eventual outcome of her fury, was a body called UK Skills, which had at this point established its base nestled within the secretariat and offices of The Princes Trust. There were half-a-dozen pitches being made to the Prince’s Trust for this business. Richard had gathered four players for our bid and it just happened we were all in our 50s. Their decision maker was a retired army general and he confessed to us that we proved successful mostly because he understood us and was not terribly comfortable with the strident young men and women who presented the other bids. Regrettably he died shortly after making this decision and was replaced by a strident young woman.

National Skills Festival business card


Manpower had evolved a whole series of initiatives that included a series of checklist questionnaires that would assess a youngster’s interests and conclude on suitable careers. This was a time when Tony Blair’s government was suggesting every student should get a university place. The notion of the show was that there was an alternative, to pursue an apprenticeship and develop a skill. Of course, had we known then that students would soon incur £9,000 pa fees and leave their courses with debts of tens of thousands then we would have had even more evidence for this alternative approach.

The MoD was quick to commit to a large amount of exhibition space to showcase skilled careers in the armed services. But perhaps most interesting was BAe that had organised a whole series of initiatives in engineering. They arranged to have a Red Arrows’ pilot, a submariner and other inspirational characters who were engineers and ‘living the dream’. They had analysed the FTSE250 to establish that 40% of all main board directors were engineers. Their message was for students to consider an engineering career.

ASIDE: Sadly BAe did one exercise that rather back-fired. They asked school students a series of questions, one was to ‘Name a famous engineer’. Pause and think who you would assume would be on their lists – Isambard Kingdom Brunel, George and Robert Stephenson, Barnes Wallis, John Logie Baird, Thomas Telford, Alec Issigonis, Trevor Bayliss, James Dyson? However, the students’ number one engineer was the fictional Kevin Webster from Coronation Street! Clearly engineering needed rebranding.

As we were developing momentum for the show, the 1999 World Youth Skills Olympics were held in the Olympic Stadium at Montreal Canada – aka, the 35th WorldSkills Competition. We took a group to see it. This was a remarkable event, it was great to see the youth of forty countries competing from IT to dress-making, panel-beating to tiling, plumbing to hairdressing. But the new strident young woman and I did not see eye to eye and I moved on.

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