For many decades, the prevailing policy of most governments has been to prioritise and support academic achievement over practical skills or aptitude. Undoubtedly, academic knowledge holds a crucial place in our society, as there are few fields or subjects that do not benefit from a solid theoretical foundation. However, the importance of practical skills, knowledge, and understanding cannot be overstated. In today's information-based economy, the development of practical expertise is increasingly challenging but also increasingly valuable.
Learning a musical instrument, mastering a craft, or acquiring proficiency in a trade all demand unwavering focus and persistence. These attributes, unfortunately, are in short supply in the fast-paced, modern world. Moreover, the earlier one embarks on the journey of practical skill acquisition, the better. Those who start early often enjoy a substantial advantage. In contrast, academic knowledge can be accumulated at any stage of life.
Consider the financial aspect as well. It can cost $30,000 per year to put a student through an engineering or history degree program. While students in most countries now contribute to their tuition fees, this contribution is typically a fraction of the total cost. This contrasts starkly with the support offered to individuals pursuing practical subjects such as electricians or machinists, who are often expected to fund their own training.
This imbalance has resulted in a labour market flooded with individuals holding academic qualifications but suffering from a widespread shortage of workers with practical experience, skills, and aptitude. Graduates leaving universities find themselves entering an intensely competitive job market, where differentiation is challenging, and many vie for a limited number of similar positions. Meanwhile, companies grapple with the challenge of locating individuals with the practical skills and knowledge essential to their operations. The retirement of a generation of baby boomers, who had accumulated extensive experience over their careers, has exacerbated this issue, leaving significant gaps and skills shortages in the workforce.
Practically every vocational field, from nursing and electricians to mechanics and machinists, faces severe skills shortages. A well-trained and talented machinist in the field of engineering can often command a higher starting salary than an engineering graduate or postgraduate, despite the latter's longer duration of study and significantly higher cost.
In the United Kingdom, the issue of skill shortages has been magnified by the ramifications of Brexit, but this problem extends well beyond Britain's borders. It could be traced back to a historical period when practical skills or vocations were the norm, and academic knowledge set individuals apart, enhancing their life opportunities. Academic knowledge served as a passport to a better life and the possibility of exploring the world. However, today, the tables have turned, and practical skills have become the passport to global opportunities. For instance, as a nurse, one can work anywhere in the world, a testament to the universality and value of practical expertise in the modern age.
The message from all this is clear, practical skills, focus, persistence, these are the valuable currencies of the future.