Could do better

Posted on 6 Jul 2011 by The Manufacturer

Jane Gray reports on the progress of WorldSkills London 2011 and the state of employer engagement with skills provision in the UK.

World Skills is touted as the ‘Olympics of skills’. An international competition which pits the best talent of each participating country against one another, it is designed to discern which nation is supporting the development of the most adept young minds across a multitude of vocational subjects.

This year, for the first time in decades, the WorldSkills competition is being hosted in the UK. The timing could hardly be more relevant as the government – particularly the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department of Education – vocalise their support for vocational skills and apprenticeships. “Real skills for real jobs” and “The foundation for economic recovery and growth” are regular buzz phrases heard from ministers in the coalition.

Preparations for WorldSkills London 2011 have been underway for quite a while now. Teams have been training and regional heats have whittled down hundreds of hopeful entrants in categories from floristry to pastry artistry. As well as web design and landscape gardening, there is a definite relevance to manufacturing skills – from CAD engineering through to robotics, CNC Milling and more. The result of these heats will be the selection of ‘Team UK’; who will compete against teams from 50 other countries in an intense event in October at the O2 Arena.

This year TM is privileged to be playing a part in WorldSkills as official media partner of the manufacturing team challenge. It is a slightly different category to many of the others in WorldSkills. This is because it combines a range of skills and involves relatively more team members; the manufacturing team challenge is extremely demanding and a pertinent reflection of the challenges inherent in modern manufacturing.

At one of the selection days for Team UK (14-17 June) TM spoke to Matthew Bell, director of CAD Skills UK. Bell is an adjudicator for the manufacturing team challenge and he described the demands of the competition: “The manufacturing team challenge demands skills in manufacturing, fabrication, CNC, assembly and design. It really represents the multi-disciplinary nature of advanced manufacturing.”

In previous years the time allowance for completion of the manufacturing team challenge has been 22 hours. Projects have included the design, manufacture and assembly of: power generating exercise equipment, battery powered vehicles and mobile solar tracking units.

This year the final contestants left to battle for a place within Team UK in the manufacturing team challenge category were from two household names for British manufacturing; Bentley Motors and BAE Systems. After a hard fought contest it was announced on June 29th at The National Apprenticeship Awards in London that it will be the BAE Systems team who will have the chance to say, as COO of the National Apprenticeship Service David Way put it: “I was best in the world at ‘X’ in 2011.” The cloak of glamour and celebration which WorldSkills places around vocational skills is a crucial contribution to changing the perception of vocational career routes, including manufacturing.

The current perception of the industry is a blocker to manufacturing prosperity which is constantly complained about at industry events and forums, yet one which few have really taken meaningful and intelligent action on.

There seems to be a reluctance on the part of manufacturing leaders to accept that changing the public perception of manufacturing means the sector must pander to what broader society finds attractive and present manufacturing careers in those terms.

While comment from figures like Alan Sugar on The Apprentice last month about the inability of engineers to perform as business leaders are unhelpful, the fact remains that manufacturing leaders have done relatively little to parade their successes and it is therefore unsurprising to hear such statements from business celebrities.

Team UK for the manufacturing and engineering WorldSkills categories.

On June 29th the National Apprenticeship Service hosted the 2011 National Apprenticeship Awards.

This event, which has increased in profile exponentially in the last three years, was held this year at the Mermaid theatre in London.

Keynote speakers included Skills Minister John Hayes, who formally announced the WorldSkills Team UK selections at the event. The qualifying teams in the manufacturing and engineering categories for WorldSkills London 2011 are as follows:

The manufacturing team challenge:
Kai Burkitt (23)
Rachael Carr (23)
Sam Andrews (23); BAE Systems

CNC milling:
David Nicholl (22); Schlumberger

CNC turning:
Philip Spowart (22); Rolls-Royce

Andrew Fielding (21); MBDA

Mechanical engineering design (CAD):
Ryan Sheridan (20); a student at Motherwell College, North Lancashire

Mechatronics (team event):
Chris Downey (23); Michelin Tyre and Mark Maginty (23); Russell Electrical Contractors

Mobile robotics (team event):
Puja Varnsani (22) and Darren Lewis (21); students at Middlesex University.

Jake Rambaldini (21); Doosan Babcock Energy Services

The rigour employed in the WorldSkills selection processes is evident in the fact that none of these team qualified by default. For instance, while the mobile robotics team had no direct competitors in the final rounds of Team UK selections they still had to complete all the challenges completed by other national team while clearing the high bar set for performance. Categories where Britain was unable to put forward successful representation include; Sheet metal technology, mould making, polymechanics and automation.

For more information on what all these categories require of competitors go to: manufacturing-(and-engineering)-technology

WorldSkills provides an opportunity to change this, and outside of Britain many nations seem to understand this far better. One representative of the WorldSkills organisation told TM that in South Korea and Japan the WorldSkills contestants are household names in the way as our XFactor and Britain’s Got Talent participants are.

The organisation behind the competition is committed to a process of spreading this understanding and embedding it in the relationship between companies, educational institutions and educational structures for the long term. WorldSkills has always collected a following of industrial partners for its biannual events. Many of those partners have been consistent. Some have changed from year to year, but until now there has been little quantitative research into the change effected within education systems or curricula as a consequence of company interaction with events such as this.

WorldSkill’s contact with schools, colleges and universities has traditionally been very close. These institutions are often the sources of competition entrants and the venues for trials and competition heats.

For the 2011 event, the interaction between competition organisers, education bodies and industry partners is being tackled with more intelligence and more attention to highlighting action points and benefits. The goal is to create robust relationships which outlast the duration of each competition and which have relevance to everyday thinking, work and systems.

At the WorldSkills selection event for Team UK held on June 15 John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education (FE), Skills and Lifelong learning, commented on this objective: “I have always said when talking about WorldSkills that its success will be tested by its legacy.” “From an employer’s point of view this event is about supporting the one-off, the show case if you like, for what we do best [in Britain]. But it is also about considering what those skills mean for their business in the long term.” The minister continued: “Productivity and skills are closely linked and I think there is a growing realisation among businesses that by working with FE colleges and other training providers they can gain the competencies they need to succeed.” For those on both sides of the training fence however, this statement may seem somewhat glib. It is the perennial complaint of manufacturing employers that training providers over complicate access to skills and misunderstand needs when developing course structures.

Meanwhile education and training providers have long been stuck in quandaries of contradictory league table performance indicators, a constraining national curriculum and lack of effective information as to labour market requirements.

Representatives from Hinkley College, one of the venues for the Team UK selection competitions, gave some valuable insight. Dr Michael Motley, vice principle of corporate and business development at Hinkley, identified the recent closure of the Connexions recruitment and advice service as a disappointment and a challenge to FE institutions trying to understand labour market needs.

The college is being proactive in filling this gap however, and is gathering information by looking at local vacancies as well as labour market intelligence from sector skills councils and the Office for National Statistics.

In addition Hinkley is acting as a role model for other FE institutions in pursuing round table events with staff and local employer participation as well as hosting guest lecturers from local business figures for students and staff. These events are designed to keep the college community engaged with the outside world while sustaining the development of a flexible curriculum which answers the needs of the local and national economy.

The enthusiastic attitude shown by Hinkley in engaging with employers is leading to practical action. Motley told TM that he had not previously appreciated the wealth of manufacturing activity in the region or the technical requirements of the businesses. In response to the enlightenment of the business development team, a £1.5m investment has been made in a new engineering building, which will specialise in engineering design skills and the delivery of an engineering design apprenticeship.

Motley says there is a damaging lack of provision in this skills area with just three centres in the UK.

What is palpably obvious in the activity at Hinkley however is that engagement works both ways. For the kind of responsive education this college is now aiming to provide, the input from employers must be consistent and considered. Occasional school visits and sponsorship of one-off events is not enough.