Sunday 23 October 2016

World Skills winners show university not the only way to a brilliant career

Published 19/08/2015 | 02:30

Damien English, Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation with Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan: the purpose of World Skills is that it demonstrates to Government and teachers that there is an alternative to running an economy solely built on people who have degrees, masters and PhDs
Damien English, Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation with Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan: the purpose of World Skills is that it demonstrates to Government and teachers that there is an alternative to running an economy solely built on people who have degrees, masters and PhDs

Did you know that Ireland has two new world champions whose achievements should be celebrated, and the significance of their victory should be appreciated in every school up and down the country?

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These people won gold in the World Skills games in Brazil last weekend. The four-day World Skills competition dates 7to 1953 and sees 1,200 competitors from 60 countries facing 1,100 expert judges. It is the World Cup for apprentices, craftsmen and young people who can actually do and make things. Remember them?

The World Skills competition occurs every two years and is the biggest vocational education and skills event in the world, truly reflecting global industry. The competitors represent the best of their peers and are selected from skills competitions in member countries. The Irish competitors represent Ireland as in any competition.

The contestants demonstrate technical abilities both individually and collectively to execute specific tasks for which they study and/or perform in their workplace.

During the four days of the competition, more than 250,000 visitors watched the talented entrants compete in 50 skills.

Skills on display included construction, manufacturing, creative arts, information technology, transportation, service, and agricultural sectors.

Ireland sent 14 contestants and won two gold medals; eight other Irish competitors won medallions of excellence, placing Ireland 11th out of 60 countries.

At a wider level, the idea of World Skills is to demonstrate to young people, their teachers and governments that there is an alternative to running an economy solely built on people who have degrees, masters and PhDs.

Yet this week Ireland is in degree frenzy. Amidst the giddy excitement of the points race and the CAO mania, do we ask what are we educating all these tens of thousand of school leavers to do?

Thousands of school leavers are being funnelled into a university industry right now from which many will emerge with absolutely no skills or qualifications bar the faint hope of a dull office job characterised by repetition, internal politics and cubicles. I know that this may sound cynical, but it is the truth.

We are seeing the trivialisation of work across the board, particularly in what used to be called white-collar work, in offices, large companies and the civil service.

In Ireland, over the past few years we have seen a massive switch from vocational training to university education. Much of this was driven by class concerns that in some way a white-collar job gave more status, the promise of higher wages and a better marriage gene pool. However, we have thousands of unemployed university graduates sitting every morning at the kitchen table scanning the web for jobs while the whistling plumber fixing the drains under the sink is taking in €80 an hour!

The global economy is changing and if you have a trade or a craft then there is a very good chance that your financial future will be more secure than if you have a piece of paper from a university, saying you can do, well, nothing!

Don't get me wrong: we should always celebrate youngsters who are competitive and want to be the best in their chosen careers, but I fear we are sleepwalking our children into a non-thinking future of white-collar job insecurity where automation will cut them down at the knees.

This is why we should shout about the success of Ireland at the World Skills games. We put forward a team of 14.

These young people dedicated the last six months to physically, mentally and technically preparing for this competition (with the assistance of Ireland Skills, employers, Solas and various third-level institutes).

Last night Ireland managed to come away with two gold medals.

The winners were Ros Wynne (Aircraft maintenance) and Alina Sile, pictured left, (restaurant service). Ros's win means four gold medals in a row for Ireland in Aircraft Maintenance, following in the footsteps of Joe Kelly (2013), Colin Callaghan (2011) and Andy Burke (2009). Ros comes from Dublin and is working with Atlantic Aviation Group in Shannon. He has recently completed Phase 6 of the Aircraft Maintenance Apprenticeship at Dublin Institute of Technology.

As you can see, we have a pedigree in airline maintenance in Ireland. It is home to Ryanair, Europe's largest airline, and the Irish airline aviation leasing industry is among the biggest in the world.

Clearly this young man is in an area where jobs are plentiful and where his craft will be recognised and well paid. Also, and this is the key to the apprenticeship system, he is learning from the lads who won gold before him. The knowledge is being passed down, modified, used and re-used. This is the very essence of learning.

Alina Sile is a third-year student at the Shannon College of Hotel Management. Alina began her winning streak when she was awarded first place in the prestigious Ireland Skills Restaurant Service Final 2015 in March.

The full Irish team were Alina Sile (Restaurant Service), David Morgan (Carpentry), Donal Logan (Plastic Die Engineering), Jonathan Flynn (Plumbing), Daniel Murphy (Joinery), Martin Tully (Industrial Control), Ros Wynne (Aircraft Maintenance), Andrew Bushe (Automobile Technology), Shane Magee (Electrical Installations), Dean McSweeney (Construction Metal Work), Owen Murphy (Welding), Cian Mulligan (Cabinetmaking), John Murray (Plastering) and Andrea Donoghue (Beauty Therapy).

All of these vocational heroes should be recognised. We also need to discuss the greater and related issue: what are we educating thousands of youngsters to do?

When you have a trade, you are free. You have value and the value is in the product. A plumber can say the drains are fixed. A cabinetmaker can say he built a new table. A restaurateur can say, there they are, satisfied customers.

In the years ahead, I believe people who have trades or crafts will not only be more secure financially but will be sole traders, masters of their own destinies and much less concerned about foreign competition forcing their employers to leave Ireland. As fewer and fewer people are able to fix things, such as engines or machines, the person who can fix things will also be able to fix his price.

One more reason to focus more on effective vocational training is the lifestyle element to the artisan, craftsman or sole agent; it allows that person to opt out or at least deal with the world on her own terms.

While nails may be dirty and collars not quite pristine, your time is your own and, as you become better and better at your trade, your price is your own too. That can't be a bad objective!

Raise a glass to our new world champions.

Irish Independent

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