Skills competitions: a tool for modernisation of vocational training


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A Russian journal “Vocational education” has recently published an article by Petri Lempinen, an ETF expert and country manager for the Russian Federation.
Mr Lempinen writes about skills competition and Russia joining them.

Skills competitions can be used as a tool to develop vocational education and training, if competitions are connected to everyday teaching and other activities of VET colleges. This will take years to achieve as example from Finland has showed, but in the end efforts will be rewarded.

Russian Federation has joined the World Skills International, a non profit organisation to promote worldwide awareness of the contribution that skills and high standards of competence make to the achievement of economic success and individual fulfilment. Membership in WSI makes Russians a family member of “Olympic Games of the vocational training“. It is also an excellent piece of news to all friends of skills competitions.

Mr Lempinen’s article is in Russian. It is followed by English translation.

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Skills competitions: a tool for modernisation of vocational training

  1. 1. Skills Competitions A tool for modernisation of vocational training Petri LempinenRussian Federation is about to join the World Skills International, a non profit organisation topromote worldwide awareness of the contribution that skills and high standards of competencemake to the achievement of economic success and individual fulfilment. Membership in WSI makesRussians a family member of “Olympic Games of the vocational training“. It is also an excellentpiece of news to all friends of skills competitions.WorldSkills Competition is the biggest global skills competition. It is a biannual international eventwhere young professionals from all member countries of World Skills International compete duringfour days for the world championship in over 45 skills categories. The next competitions will takeplace in Leipzig, Germany in 2013+. The organisers expect more than 1000 competitors toparticipate in World Skills Leipzig.The first main effort for Russians will be establishment of the national team to participate in Leipzigin 2013. Before that Russians could also gain experience of the competitions by visiting in the thirdEuroSkills that will be organised in October 2012 in Belgium. Participation in this event is limited tocountries that are members in EuroSkills Organisation.Participation in WorldSkills Competition is an expensive operation and each country should take allbenefits out of it. The fact that Russia is considering to send the national team to Leipzig can beused for promotion of secondary VET and its relevance to labour market. This is one way toincrease attractiveness of training but it works only if it reflects realistically learning opportunitiesthat vocational training offers in Russia.Skills competitions can also be used as a tool to develop vocational education and training, ifcompetitions are connected to everyday teaching and other activities of VET colleges. This will takeyears to achieve as example from Finland has showed, but in the end efforts will be rewarded.Quality of vocational education and trainingWhat is quality of vocational education and training? There is no simple answer to the question butquality can be described as a relevance to the needs of labour market. This implies that learningoutcomes, skills and competences, meet the needs of actual jobs that are available at the labourmarket. In summary provision of good quality vocational education and training meets the needs ofcustomers, who are namely the students and local or regional labour market where graduates areexpected to find a job.Labour market has a demand for a variety of skills that can be achieved from vocational or highereducation. This provision of training can be addressed either to young people or to adults that arealready at labour market. The main message, that has been globally confirmed, is that more andmore jobs demand key competencies which are not related to technical demands of a givenoccupation. E.g. social competencies refer to ability to work effectively with other peopleunderstanding codes of conduct. The sense of initiative and entrepreneurship includes meansability to turn ideas into action. These are all competencies of a modern professional worker orspecialist.If the idea that quality of training can be judged against the needs of the labour market is accepted,then it is possible to understand how quality of training can be evaluated at different levels.Firstly at the system level VET should address the needs of employers, and individuals at the sametime. A balanced system of education and training provides labour market work force with differentqualifications and skills for different occupations. This demand can be expressed in qualitative andquantitative demands. Are qualifications up to date to provide skills that are used in contemporaryeconomy? Is the volume of education and training sufficient to the number of people in need oftraining and number of jobs available at the labour market? Are policies and strategies defined bypublic authorities supporting provision and development of quality training?
  2. 2. Secondly at the level of education and training institution like a VET college quality can beevaluated against the capacity of school to provide training to applicants and provide adequateskills to surrounding labour market. Is the school system able to accommodate all applicants andprovide them with good skills? At institutional level the key issue is autonomy of training institutions.They need powers and means to react to different needs that they observe.Thirdly at the level of an individual student quality of training reflects successful performance andgraduation leading to employment after studies. This reflects the teaching methods and learningenvironments that can support or destroy the motivation of students. Quality is closely linked toattractiveness of VET. Education and training can be an attractive choice for young people and theirparents if it gives possibilities for gainful employment. This requires that also employers are awareof skills and competencies that VET gives to graduates.Finland and skills competitionsFinland has gained over 20 years of experience from the modern skills competitions. The firstnational championships were organised already in 1988 with some 30 participants competing in twoskill categories, occupations. A year later, in 1989, Finland participated in the World Skillscompetitions for the first time. The first national team was not victorious but by participating FinnishVET people got a good idea of the nature of skills competitions.The first serious attempt to organise the work around competitions was taken in 1993 when a non-profit association Skills Finland was created. Skills Finland is in charge of organisation of nationalskills competitions and participation of Team Finland in international competitions. Skills Finland isan exceptional NGO as it combines the interest of the government, social partners, trainingproviders and VET students. National Board of Education, VET providers and colleges, employerorganisations, trade unions and student organisations are members of Skills Finland. Widemembership means that Skills Finland has a unique position as network interlinking all majorstakeholders of vocational education and training.The second attempt was taken in year 2000 when Finland applied to host the 2005 World SkillsCompetitions. The competitions were granted to Finland and this was the start for the strongevolution of activities around competitions. The key success factor since that has been the fact thatcompetitions have been linked to national VET qualifications and the most of the actual work isdone by VET teachers. Implementation of the competitions is based on VET providers will to usethem as a tool to improve quality of training.Focusing the national levelThe most important of level of skills competitions in Finland are national championships, which arecalled Taitaja, and semi-finals in which competitors are selected for the national championships.These activities are complemented by pre-semi-finals that some institutions organise among theirstudents. This is a practical way to engage thousands of students into competitions which in the endlead to participation of the national team of 40-50 competitors in World Skills Competition.National skills competition Taitaja is the annual three day event for more than 400 young VETstudents and apprentice who are under 20 years old. They were selected among over 1800participants in regional semi-finals in which all VET providers can participate. Almost all providers ofIVET sent competitors to semi-finals.Skills Finland grants the right to organise the event to VET providers. Taitaja is the biggest annualVET event in Finland with an audience tens of thousands of people. This means that only big VETinstitutions are able to host the competitions. The competitions are accompanied with a lot ofevents, like skill shows, try a trade opportunities, an educational fair and various conferences. Thebudget of organising one national competition is around 3.5 million euros. This is covered by theorganiser with its partners and sponsors. There is often financial support from local or regionaladministration and also from Ministry of Education and Culture.
  3. 3. Since 2006 TaitajaPLUS is the Finnish National Skills Competition for student with disabilities andspecial needs. This competition is held annually together with Taitaja competition. Aim of theTaitajaPLUS is to improve the vocational education of students with special needs and raise theawareness of vocational skills competitions for students with special needs. It also helps to connectthe skilful competitors with each other and with potential employers. Finland has participated also inAbilympics since 2007 which are the global skills competitions for people with disabilities and special needs.The third level of national competition is Taitaja9 which is a playful competition for 9th graders ofcomprehensive schools in craftsmanship. There are annually more than 3000 participants inTaitaja9 competitions in different schools and regions and they aim to improve knowledge ofpractical subjects, particularly on technical and textile handicrafts, in an inspiring way.Competitions and Finnish VET provisionAt the moment there are 52 qualifications with 117 specialisations in the Finnish IVET system. Inprinciple all these qualifications require a three year programme and they provide access to highereducation. In Taitaja competitions there are some 40 45 skill categories which mean thatcompetitions cover a big part of the national VET provision and needs of labour market. There areannually more than 400 competitors in Taitaja.Skill categories are in national competition are divided into six clusters: building, catering services,industrial services, information and communication technology, services and vehicle technology andtransport. Individual skills categories vary from hairdressing to plumbing and floristry. The variety ofthe skill categories tries to take into account different sectors and needs of economy and labourmarket.Finnish vocational education and training system consists of Initial and Continuous vocationaleducation and training. IVET is mostly targeted to young people as an option to achieve aprofession and enter the labour market. CVT is targeted for adults who need up-skill or re-skill theircompetences or change an occupation.The competitions test the essential skills and competencies of occupations to the standards set bynational core curricula. This link between competition tasks and curricula is extremely importantbecause it links competitions to everyday work of a VET institution. On the other hand it is importanthighlight that standards set in the national core curricula reflect labour markets skill demands indifferent occupations. Also competition tasks reflect real tasks that a VET graduates can perform inenterprises. Since 2001 competition tasks have been collected into data bank that is accessible forfree. These tasks can be used in teaching and also in preparation to competitions.In Finland the concept of student assessment is quite similar than concept of skills competitions.Assessment of IVET and CVT students takes place in form of practical skills or competence tests atwork places in real work life situations. In both cases students are assessed against the criterion setin the curricula and test by representatives of an enterprise and VET teachers. This is usually doneby skilled workers or specialists in the enterprises. Some training providers have used practicalskills tests as a form of competitions when they are selecting their “team” to be sent to regionalsemi-finals.Involvement of teachers from VET collegesCompetent teachers are the most important resource of Finnish VET system. They need to havepractical experience from the field of their teaching but they also have pedagogical qualification.Usually VET teachers are recruited from the labour market and after their career choice they enterthe pedagogical education.Organisation of the skills competitions is based on the active contribution of the teachers. Eachoccupation that is present in competitions has a network of teachers to prepare competition tasksand to act as judges in competitions. In World Skills Competitions these judges are called experts.There are also representatives from enterprises in these networks.
  4. 4. Skills Finland organisation has nominated so called Skill manager to every category of competition.Their task is to coordinate training for international competitions. The skill manager also participatesin tasks of an expert (judge) in his specific trade, undertakes the communication and preparation oftraining with experts and trainers as well as administers the reporting and financial responsibilities inhis trade.For individual teachers participation in the skills competitions offers possibilities for professional development.Through networking they can benchmark their own college and training methodologies with colleagues fromother colleges.Competitions as a tool for quality managementQuality of vocational education and training is not an individual and separate aim of developmentactivities. On the contrary quality is the final result of all efforts to plan, develop and organiseeducation and training. Consequently the quality in VET is a management issue and it should be anintegral part of everyday work at the college. It can be supported by tools of quality assurance, butmore important for the management of the college is to keep asking the crucial question: How wellis the college serving the needs of different clients? This work can be supported by practical toolslike skills competitions which create links between different colleges and between labour marketand a college.Skills competitions can support quality management in two different ways. Firstly participation incompetitions provides possibilities to benchmark the college against other colleges in which skillsand competencies as learning outcomes are relevant indicators. In skills competitions they skillsand competences are measured against the criterion of competition tasks. This is relevant to themanagement of the college, if competition tasks are aligned with educational standards andcurricula. Hence this criterion could be used systematically inside the college. When the criterion isrelevant to employers and it is linked to qualifications it supports the improvement of vocationaleducation and training.ConclusionsAt the level of VET system policy makers need carefully consider several issues when they want topromote quality management. When VET policy is aiming to provide labour market with betterskilled people, the most important issue is the equality of VET providers in a country or a region.How to make sure that all providers produce even or standard quality? Funding and resources areof course needed but up to day qualifications and curricula based on occupational standards are asimportant. Globally speaking all successful VET systems are based on the competence of teachersand workplace trainers who are aware of the latest teaching methods.Secondly when a country is reforming or optimizing its provision of vocational education andtraining, policy makers need to make sure that old traditions and organizational cultures don’tremain inside new structures. They would harm the attempts to deliver certain level of quality in allinstitutions or units. Shift to new culture can be supported by openness of information but also byintroducing new forms of cooperation between colleges. Use of skills competitions in a federal or aregional context could be this kind of practical tool.This article has presented some Finnish experiences on the use of skills competitions in constantimprovement of quality of VET. The main idea is that skills competitions can be an important tool inmodernisation of VET if they are connected to qualifications and curricula. The second preconditionis that the practical work in colleges must be done by VET teachers with the support ofmanagement.Useful Internet