Worldskills -sharing skills across the world

It was 1997 and Tjerk Dusseldorp was standing on the station in St Gallen Switzerland when he noticed a young man dressed in his Australian uniform, a medal around his neck. He was 22-year-old Grant Stewart, a plumber from Wollongong NSW and the day before he’d competed in the WorldSkills International competition, a four-day Olympics-style event in which young tradespeople compete. The pair happened to be sharing a train to Zurich Airport and over the next 90 minutes they barely drew breath.

Grant had been open about the hardships he’d experienced and the huge impact these competitions had had on his life. “That’s exactly why I got Australia involved, to open up opportunities for young people they couldn’t have dreamed about,” says Tjerk.

Little did Grant know that Tjerk had been pivotal in Australia’s involvement in WorldSkills International.

The son of Lendlease founder Dick Dusseldorp, Tjerk had grown up seeing firsthand the crucial role trades had had in building this country. He often accompanied his father on site visits and became increasingly frustrated by the ongoing disregard shown to vocational education and trades. “In Australia they’ve always been regarded as plan B or C.”

Tjerk saw an opportunity to help raise the skills and standards of the apprenticeship system in Australia and set about convening a summit for 120 apprentices and with it the inaugural Apprentice of the Year Award. He discovered the International Vocational Training Organisation [later re-named WorldSkills International] who ran the biennial Youth Skill Olympics and convinced them to sign Australia up as a member country and agree to Australia hosting the 1988 event. A WorldSkills Australia office was set up and their mission established: to challenge young people, teachers, trainers and employers to strive for world class competency standards in all industries.

With the support of then-prime minister Bob Hawke the inaugural Australian Youth Skill Olympics opened in Sydney in 1988. “Australia came third, from 18 countries!”

Tjerk – and indeed his father’s – vision of achieving parity of esteem between vocational and general education was well on its way, and when Dick was approaching retirement in 1988 they founded the Dusseldorp Skills Forum, initially to continue to support youth and skills development. One of the young tradesmen who benefited irrevocably from World Skills Australia – and indirectly from the Forum – was Grant.

Two years after completing his plumbing apprenticeship Grant entered, and won WSA’s regional competition, gaining entry to the national competition which he also went on to win.

I had no expectations. I’d struggled with depression and this was something to prove to myself, I was alright. I couldn’t believe I’d won, it was the happiest thing, said Grant.