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27 September 2023

A unified vision to transform skill systems

The WorldSkills Ireland Conference 2023 delivers a call to delegates to embrace an apprenticeship model that future-proofs skills for young people, industries, and economies.

The WorldSkills Ireland Conference 2023 opened today under the banner, “Transforming skills systems for Industry 5.0.” It was a call to deliver Vocational Education and Training (VET) that will help individuals, economies and industries become sustainable, stable, and resilient in an increasingly uncertain world.

The conference took place on the second day of WorldSkills General Assembly Dublin 2023 and was attended by over 300 people from Ireland and around the world. Delegates heard from a wide range of speakers including those from Ireland’s National Apprenticeship Office, Teachers Union Ireland, WorldSkills Champions, industry Partners Autodesk and Festo, and conference coalition partners UNESCO-UNEVOC and the World Bank. Discussions ranged from the transformation of Ireland’s own apprenticeship system over the last decade, to the role of apprentices in our rapidly evolving digital world.

Chris Humphries, President and Chair of the Board of WorldSkills, opened the conference with a warm welcome to delegates, describing the event as “a platform for knowledge sharing between our international network and Ireland’s leaders in education and skills.” He recalled how the conference had been postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic and praised Ireland’s “bold action” around apprenticeships during challenging times. He said, “When we were due to meet in 2020, we were intending to launch Ireland’s plans. Now here, in 2023, we are celebrating its success.”

The first session did just that. Entitled “The national project to transform the apprenticeship system in Ireland: Reflections on the work in progress,” it kicked off with a memorable key note speech from Dr Mary-Liz Trant, Executive Director at the National Apprenticeship Office. She described the huge strides Ireland has made in the last ten years, growing apprentices from 7,000 to 25,409 and increasing programmes from 27 to 72. The Action Plan for Apprenticeship launched by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in 2021 has, Trant said, “built on the well-established strengths and learnings from five years of consortia-led models.” She went on to say, “We are now establishing a single integrated model of apprenticeships that is flexible and responsive, easy to engage with, and delivers high standards.”

The discussion that followed reflected on the diverse skills and opportunities that apprenticeships bring. Amanda Fennell, Director of EMEA Marketing at Autodesk Europe, Ireland, said, “A lot of the skills you learn as an apprentice are not what you would study in university. They are more focused on problem solving and creativity. We need to position apprenticeships as a way to develop the agile skills we need as a country to go forward.”

Megan Yeates, who won Gold for WorldSkills Ireland in Freight Forwarding at WorldSkills Kazan 2019, backed this up saying, “It’s not about choosing between an apprenticeship route or a higher education route. Apprentices have the benefit of workplace experience, so what they are learning in the classroom becomes very practical as they know how to apply it in the real world. Rather than it being a competition, we need to show how these two pathways link together.”

The panel agreed that investment in the industry-led model was having impact, but that greater engagement was needed from educators and parents, as primary influencers of young people. Yeates reflected, “As a parent, it’s about being as open minded, doing your research, and finding out what’s out there. I also think it’s a case of getting primary schools on board. Primary school teachers might not be aware of what’s out there and can help inspire a much younger generation of students.”

Michael Gillespie, General Secretary of the Teachers Union, Ireland opened the second session by sharing his organisation’s passion and commitment to skills. As sponsor of the WorldSkills Ireland Conference 2023, he said “To its very bones, the TUI wants to support apprenticeships. We want to advocate for an equal and fair apprenticeship system that puts students at its heart, and that creates pathways to personal growth and economic prosperity.”

Finding the balance between human intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI) was the theme of the next keynote speech, delivered by Dr Nader Imani, Executive VP Global Education, Festo. After declaring himself a “technology optimist,” he encouraged the delegation to see AI as a tool that we can use to enhance the learning experience. Rather than fearing technology, he asked the audience to consider how AI has made learning more personalised, how it has unlocked a vast number of resources for learners and educators, and how it has created greater access to education and training for many. He said, “AI is helping us create a global school without walls. With it, we can make education more accessible, more efficient and more cost effective.”

As the discussion moved to the panel, Michael McGrath, Technical Director at AMTCE, asked the gathered speakers whether AI could ever replace apprentices. Priscilla Gatonye, Programme Officer for Inclusion and Youth at UNESCO-UNEVOC responded saying, “AI can do so much, but it can’t do everything. Take construction for example. Yes it can streamline project management and enhance design, but it can’t actually fix your drainage or do your plumbing. AI does not have good interpersonal skills, nor can it replace values like empathy and morality, or deliver good workmanship in crafts.”

Luis Benveniste, Global Director of Education at World Bank, reflected on the technology’s strengths saying, “One of the great promises of AI is that it can dramatically reduce the cost of training and make it more accessible than traditional face-to-face learning. It also helps deliver training where there is not the infrastructure to support it, such as upskilling people in electrical vehicle maintenance in developing countries or preparing young workers in agriculture to use heavy machinery safely.”

So if AI is a tool for us to work and live better, the panel were asked to consider whether we are using it well enough? Shweta Ratanpura, WorldSkills Champions Trust representative for Asia said, “There is a running joke between us creatives that we don’t want AI to do our art for us, but we do want it to do our chores, so we have more time to do our art.” She went on to say that helping learners use AI and other emerging technologies well ultimately comes down to the relevance of training systems and the educators that teach them. Ratanpura continued, “Our training systems needs to be updated regularly and we need experienced faculty who are more adaptive to new technology. We forget to focus on the trainers to ensure they have the right skills.”

The panel agreed that embracing AI in skills requires a change mindset. Gatonye reflected, “Young people need to not only be consumers of knowledge but producers of knowledge. It’s important we give them a platform to speak out on what is important for their own skills development.” Ratanpura agreed saying, “We need younger people to come back to the system not just as learners but as trainers. We need their experience of what it means to adapt to these new technologies so the next generation can adapt more easily.”

Imani summed up the panel’s thoughts by saying, “The introduction of new technology is a balance. At first it can present challenge but in time it can create new jobs, provide competitor advantage, and support our labour market. Technology is nothing new. It’s about how we use it better.”

Inspired by Ireland’s compelling example of its transformed apprenticeship systems and the thought-provoking reflections on integrating technology with human endeavour, the delegates saw the conference draw to a close with a few final words from Neale Richmond, Ireland’s Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment. He was clear to declare that “business as usual for apprenticeships was no longer an option”. He said, “Apprenticeships play an important role in ensuring we are not just reacting to challenges, but proactively working to embrace the opportunities that come with new technologies. Today’s conference should give us the conviction that we’re on the right path. Now let us look to the future, better equipped to foresee the challenges and better ready to meet them with the right skills.”