Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me begin by saying what a great pleasure and honour it is for me to have been invited to speak before you today on this, the occasion of your General Assembly in Riga. This is because I am aware of the importance of your crucial work in ensuring that vocational training is given that place that it merits in our societies.
As you might already know, I shall be a Member of the European Parliament – where I chair the Committee on Budgets – for only a few more days. The newly elected representatives to the European Parliament will be taking up their seats from the second of July.
Over the course of the last legislature, I developed with some of my colleagues, a project that should help furnish professional and vocational training with the reputation for quality and professionalism that it deserves. The project promotes the training of young apprentices by facilitating their mobility across the European Union and, as such, represents, I feel, one of the most significant investments in the future that we might make. Our societies require a fully skilled workforce and nurturing future talents should be at the centre of any self-respecting public funding programme. There is no reason why we should not be able to identify the personal talents that each young person possesses before then nurturing them so that they yield the greatest possible fruit. As we contemplate demographic developments to come, we are also aware of the importance of leaving nobody to one side. Indeed, ensuring that this is not the case is precisely what you at Worldskills have achieved and, ladies and gentlemen, let me say you represent an excellent example that others should follow.
My conviction that professional training should play a key role in our societies stems from two observations. The first is that countries with a tradition of apprenticeships rooted in their economic and social culture are significantly less affected by youth unemployment than those that do not. In some regions, youth unemployment has attained inordinately high levels and this scourge is something that we must overcome. The second observation is that students who have been mobile during their higher education studies – thanks to “Erasmus+” scholarships – are considerably better protected against subsequent unemployment.
As a result, I set out to combine “Apprenticeship” and “Erasmus+” in an attempt to couple the benefits of lowering youth unemployment and increasing job security in general. All involved in the Parliament were aware that there would be stumbling blocks on the way, not least because apprenticeship represents both a contract for the delivery of training and an employment contract. Worse, given that legal structures vary from one country to another there is a considerable barrier to achieving the ease of movement that we should like to see. And thirdly, there is the psychological barrier represented by leaving a familiar environment for a foreign country.
Undaunted, our pilot project aimed to identify and quantify the barriers to long-term mobility involving a stay abroad of several months. From this work, we are able to formulate a number of useful lessons and draw a series of pertinent conclusions. One of the most encouraging of our findings was that, upon their return – after several months spent in another country – the feedback from apprentices and their employers was highly favourable. This reinforced our conviction that the mobility of apprentices is, indeed, a powerful lever when it comes to the employability of young people and the competitiveness of companies.
At this point let me say a few words about the "Worldskills" movement itself. What we have set out to achieve fully matches the values that initially inspired Worldskills. In particular, the competitions that you organise in each of our countries – competitions that allow for a comparison of national talents at European level – bring out the real value of learning a trade and the appeal that this has for young people, previously in Budapest, next year in Graz, then worldwide like in Abu Dhabi in 2017 and soon in Kazan.
Such competitions stimulate a desire for excellence and, in nurturing a competitive spirit, inevitably give rise to league tables. These tables provide an excellent indication of performance. The Worldskills Competitions provide a clear idea of levels of skill and abilities and these are just as useful and valuable as those supplied by PISA or Shanghai. I must admit that I only became aware of what you had already been doing for years late in the game. Perhaps I might encourage you to more actively publicise your activities so that our fellow Europeans are made aware of your invaluable contribution to furthering the benefits of professional training.
Long-term mobility for a period of at least three months and ideally six months, allows young people to encounter different perspectives, to immerse themselves in other customs, to speak a language other than their mother tongue. Such mobility also brings with it awareness of differences in laws and regulations and – if our goal of fostering youth mobility is to be achieved – undoubtedly increases the felt need for harmonisation of regulatory frameworks. All European Member States must make a conscious effort in this respect. Without a common desire to render the programme practicable, it is bound to fail.
Not least amongst the contributions that might be made in this respect is the need to formally recognise training undertaken in a foreign country. The ECVET (European credits of Vocational Education Training) are implemented in a more or less technocratic and rigid manner depending on the country in question. Unfortunately, all too often, pragmatism and flexibility are set to one side. By contrast, it is once again only far too late in the day that I became acquainted with the rating system in your Worldskills Standard Specifications (WSS). The validity, clarity and coherence of these specifications might well inspire the work of the academic authorities responsible for awarding diplomas that attest to professional skills and abilities. Would it not be worthwhile attempting to merge the ECVET system with your Worldskills standards?
And, to this end, what can we in the European Institutions do? In accepting your invitation to speak here today, I gladly accepted in the hope that we would be able to work more closely together in future. I now realise that for years, the European Commission has followed your work with well-deserved interest. I believe that – given this familiarity with the value of what you at Worldskills already achieve – it should be possible to draw on the funds available under the “Erasmus+” programme. Such funding might be used, for instance, to cover the cost of trips and stays necessitated by the preparation or running of competitions. Such support would fall into the category of “small-scale partnerships”.
Indeed, during our meeting in Brussels two weeks ago, it was agreed that this was an option that we would pursue. The proposal came up in connection with the bid on the part of Worldskills France to host the 2023 international competitions in Lyon. This is a chance to really achieve something of European scope. It is an event that will unite our continent, shine a bright spotlight on the different trades and skills that apprentices have available to them and, in so doing, stimulate a sense of vocation for professional training among young Europeans.
Moreover, offering funding support for such initiatives is part of our wider desire to ensure that the “Erasmus+” programme - probably the most popular programme that the European Union has to offer - benefits an even wider public than is the case at present. For this reason, Parliament urges that we triple the appropriations allocated to “Erasmus+”. With this larger funding, we hope that apprentices will come to enjoy the same advantages as students.
It remains the case, of course, that the European Union requires dynamic partners. I feel that our goals can only be properly pursued by means of close cooperation between the "Worldskills" movement and the European institutions. It is my firm wish that we continue together along this path resolutely. In so doing, we will pave the grounds for the Europe of the future, one that has ever more "Centres of Vocational Excellence". These centres that will train and educate young people, cultivate their talents and constitute the foundations for real pan-European vocational training.
So before I finish, let me assure you that I am, indeed, readying myself for leaving the European Parliament. Nevertheless, I shall communicate to the new MEPs how much important work those vocational European projects are, and for my part, I shall follow this project in a different but no less committed and – I might even say – militant capacity.
It only remains for me to express my best wishes for France’s 2023 bid and, in the meantime, to hope that the preparation of the forthcoming competitions will be both enjoyable and fruitful.
Thank you very much.