Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you today on a subject about which I feel very strongly, and one that I believe is enormously important for the future well-being of this country - the proper celebration and promotion of vocational skills training and careers, particularly for our young people.
Over the past four years I have been encouraging my Trust and UK Skills to work together to find new ways to tackle the skills crisis, promote excellence and make skills attractive for young people. I have been reluctant to say too much publicly on the subject until I felt that we could prove we were able to do something about the problems. That moment, I believe, has now very much arrived.
During the course of this week, SkillCity will give in excess of 80,000 visitors - mostly young people - the opportunity to see more than 100 different vocational skills in action, and to try many of them out for themselves.
The skills on show range from bricklaying to website design, from welding to electronic engineering, from car maintenance to cooking. Their experience here will, I am sure, give them a vivid idea of what is involved in taking up a vocational skills career and will also, I sincerely hope, convince many young people that it is the right choice for them.
I could not be more grateful to all of the many national and regional agencies who have worked together with my Trust and UK Skills to make this enormous event possible. In particular I must thank our partners in Manchester and the North West Region, who have moved heaven and earth to bring SkillCity to Salford Quays and in the process enabled us to construct one of the largest temporary buildings in Europe in record time.
I am delighted to say that SkillCity will now form the centrepiece of an ongoing programme of vocational skills events and campaigns in the future, and that the next national SkillCity event is already booked for November 2004 in London.
So why do I believe that SkillCity and this whole subject of vocational skills are so important for us all? And why at this particular time?
There is a well-documented shortage in this country of properly trained and skilled people, across a wide range of different vocational skill areas and careers.
The latest Employer Skills Survey shows that one in every 12 employers has difficulties in recruiting new staff, simply because they cannot find people with the right skills. One in four employers report that they have insufficient skills amongst their existing staff. There are nearly a million people in the UK looking for work, and yet - paradoxically - at the same time there are also over a million job vacancies that have not been filled, many of them because of skills shortages.
We know from the National Skills Task Force, chaired by Chris Humphries, that this country has a far smaller proportion of the working population who have been trained in the important intermediate technical and vocational skills than, for example, our competitors in Germany and France. The differences are particularly marked among the younger age groups.
Many of our key industries are under pressure. Over the next four years, the construction industry alone will need to take on nearly 80,000 new recruits each year. The largest requirements will be for bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, carpenters and joiners. And yet more than two thirds of construction industry employers already have difficulties in finding and training people in just these skill areas.
Research published by my Trust today shows that younger people are far less likely than older people to consider that being a plumber, electrician or bricklayer is an attractive career option. And I have seen some of these difficulties at first hand, for instance from the companies who have been working so hard to construct the interior of the new Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
And recently I learned from a successful hairdresser who had bought an expensive house in a new development in London that the entire crescent of houses had had to be gutted internally and rebuilt because of the impossible shoddiness of their construction. The only way this could be done - at a cost of some £14 million - was to hire retired or much older skilled tradesmen.
The truth is that there is a great big black hole out there into which this country is at risk of falling unless we take vocational skills seriously.
I am convinced that many of these skills shortages are caused by the fact that we are now encouraging far too many young people in this country to aspire to desk-bound and management-oriented careers. At the same time we are encouraging far too few to aim for those vocational careers which rely on practical skills and crafts - both modern (such as industrial electronics) and traditional (such as stonemasonry).
All too often, through my Trust, I have seen the results of what I can only describe as a misguided drive by the educational system and the curriculum to pressurise young people into careers for which they are completely unsuited.
Quite a long time ago it began to dawn on me that the result of all this tends to be unhappy, often alienated and unfulfilled people, who are deeply dissatisfied with what they are doing, and who in any case at the end of their training cannot find jobs at the levels that they have been led to expect.
This "skills trap" particularly affects young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and often leads to further unemployment and a prolonged cycle of disadvantage. On the other hand, according to recent research (from Essex University and the London School of Economics) at least a third of university graduates who are in jobs believe that they are over-qualified for them.
We therefore need, I would suggest, a concerted campaign to raise significantly the status and desirability of vocational skills careers in the eyes of young people. We need to redress what I believe is an over-emphasis on academic and theoretical training for the minority and an under-emphasis on vocational training and apprenticeships for the majority.
We must find a way of ensuring that all young people understand that a vocational or craft-based job can be immensely satisfying - and that this work is of equal value to an employer and society as a whole as work in administration, research or management. And I might just say that when I travel round the country meeting people from every sort of background, it is rare that I find skilled craftsmen or women who are unhappy in their work. They usually derive a real sense of satisfaction and, above all, pride from what they do.
Of course we need some graduates with arts degrees (I am after all one myself and look where it's got me!), but we also need far more highly skilled craftsmen and technicians. And I look forward to the time when any parent would be just as proud of a son or daughter who became an expert cabinetmaker as of another who became a doctor. This will, in turn, make it so much easier for employers to recruit the large numbers of skilled people that they so desperately need in the future.
I am determined that my own organisations - the SkillCity campaign, The Prince's Trust, Business in the Community, and The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment will all play their part by building on their already successful skills programmes and by working co-operatively to find new ways to tackle this problem in the future.
I also welcome the many other initiatives to promote vocational skills - too numerous to mention individually - that I know are already under way, within both the public and private sectors.
Many of them are led by people in this room, and I do congratulate you on what you are doing. And I must just say that I find it particularly encouraging that the Government department responsible for this area, the DfES, (Department for Education and Skills) does nowadays carry the word "Skills", as well as the word "Education", in its title. And their largest funding agency, the LSC, (Learning and Skills Council) carries this same word "Skills" alongside the word "Learning"! Very heartening signs, I believe, for all of us who are concerned about the development and promotion of vocational skills for our young people in the future!
I have found this morning enormously invigorating and I hope that this extraordinary event will herald the dawn of a new era for the skilled trades. As I have seen today, there is certainly no shortage of goodwill and enthusiasm, but there may be a lot of thoroughly exhausted people amongst you all at the end of this week!