Thrills and skills excel at Excel

Posted on 7 Oct 2011 by The Manufacturer

TeamUK seems well-drilled and skilled but will need to be at its sharpest to compete with the world’s best in a defining competition, says Will Stirling.

Christian Schweizer and Tobias Dietrich, barely out of school, work intensely on the mechatronics assembly challenge. Nearby, the UK’s Sam Andrews, Kai Burkitt and Rachael Carr are hard at work constructing a working motorcycle from scratch in the Manufacturing Team Challenge.

Down the hall, Xianfeng Pei of China beavers away in a welding cell, screened from the public, working against the clock to fabricate a project from technical drawings. Taha Zouhri of Morocco is going flat out next to Finland’s Tuomas Pirttijoki building a switch system for the industrial automation challenge.

I am twice the age of these kids and, with the exception of some caveman-standard welding, I cannot do any of these things. It’s a chastening experience to be surrounded by hundreds of more skilful, and younger, people.

And it’s a glimpse of the future we are trying to create. If the rhetoric from the politicians and sector skills councils is to be believed, UK plc will simply not retain its long term place on the G8 table without a new model army of vocationally ‘hard’ skilled people.

WorldSkills London 2011 is breathtaking, and not just near the pungent welding zone. The scale and the infrastructure is impressive – two car production lines stand alongside a Gazelle helicopter, near to ranks of CNC milling machines. That’s just three of the 16 skills being tested in the engineering and manufacturing technologies zone, the biggest zone here.
London mayor Boris Johnson’s arrival quickly forms a scrum of press, school kids and onlookers. True to character, the mayor ‘has a go’ at changing a superbike wheel; he drives a compressed air wrench and (with a little help) manages to put the new wheel on with a murmur of approval from the mob. Earlier a rumour arose that Boris will pledge £13 million over four years in a Cash for Skills programme for London. No chance of direct confirmation, as his Pied Piper like sortie through the North Hall creates an impenetrable wake of curious followers.

While it’s quieter today (Friday) than earlier this week, it is still abuzz with apprentices, schoolchildren, mentors and engineering types. Missile manufacturer MBDA, which has about 60 apprentices across two UK sites at any one time, has a “Have a Go At” stand near the electronics zone. You can make a fuse tester, test it and take it home to show Mum and Dad. The MBDA attendants, both 3rd year apprentices, say the stand was packed with mainly primary school kids on Tuesday. Are they learning anything here? “They want to make one – then we ask them what it is they don’t know,” says Lee Ribby, an engineering apprentice at MBDA. “But we explain what it does as they make it.” Have any young kids shown any interest in engineering as a career?

“Some, more today as they are mainly from Year 10 and up. We give out leaflets about apprenticeships at MBDA, and many have taken them,” says commercial apprentice Emily Wilkin.
MBDA’s Andrew Fielding represents TeamUK in the Electronics category. Its not a huge surprise – in the regional UKSkills competition that served as the feeder to TeamUK, MBDA employees secured the top six places, says Lee Ribby.

WorldSkills has been thoughtfully branded, to prompt visitors to think about learning these trades and skills for real. Banners and signs everywhere bear the “I AM” logo: “I Am An Engineer”, “I Am Investing in the Future”, and even “I Am.. Here to Help” worn by the show helpers. “Have a Go” signs are omnipresent, stressing that this is a hands-on exhibition for visitors to touch and do.

Is it working? Asking some London school children what they think of this skills bonanza illicits a mixed, yet mostly encouraging, response. At the car painting stand, where kids can simulate spray painting, artistic painting and – more popularly, motor racing – I ask some kids if this experience has made them think about an automotive career. “It’s good, I’m definitely interested in it,” says Rees, a Year 11 pupil at Woolwich Polytechnic. “I’m coming back tomorrow with my parents. I want to be an electrician,” says friend Troy. Waiting for his turn on the car video game, Jay from Cheshunt School is a little cooler.

“It’s alright. I’ve not thought much about this as a job – anyway, I want to be a at bookie.”
Some of his female colleagues at Cheshunt again prove a good demographic spread in attitudes. One said she was here to find a boyfriend, another wanted to work in childcare. Fahimo, however, seemed to be a little more focused. “I like engineering, cars and bikes, assembly – its cool.” These girls are 14 years old – proof that engineering is not a word taught at 16+.

Lincoln Electric is running the virtual arc welding stand. A group of mixed ethnicity Year 9 boys crowds around, keen to ‘have a go’ with the (virtual) welding torch. Zubair from Lister Community School in Plaistow, is impressed. “I found it realistic. I’m not sure about this for a job, but I like the laser and the realism of the machine.” What does engineering mean, I ask friend Naheem. “You’ve got to get good GSCES, you need to use a computer – its not just stuff like this.” Naheem said he would like to find out more about it for a job.

Nicola at Samsung Heavy Industries is spending half her time telling school kids that Samsung actually builds ships, and the other half stopping them playing games on the Samsung display smartpads. “We’ve had a few people ask about jobs, but this display is mainly to show people that Samsung is a shipbuilder, whereas they tend to think ships come from Shell and Maersk.” With City & Guilds, Samsung is a premier sponsor of WorldSkills London 2011.

Contestants in the Engineering and Manufacturing Zone are often seen staring at a computer screen and consulting schematics and tables of figures. It’s a reminder, for all those watching who don’t know, that modern manufacturing skills are as much about using the head as the hands.
Elsewhere, young people are making furniture, baking cakes, printing on full-scale offset presses, tasting and rating wine, laying bricks and styling hair.
A morning at WorldSkills 2011 is a humbling experience. It reminds you how little you know, by showing you how much these teenagers know.

Judging from the expressions on the competitors’ faces, and the racks of tools and instruments at their disposal as they connect, solder, mill and crimp, the challenges are really tough. When Prime Minister David Cameron said he was inspired by the event and was proud of TeamUK’s involvement, I suspect he wasn’t merely soundbiting.

WorldSkills London UK is open to the public Saturday and Sunday October 9 and 10 – if you’re a parent to a teenager, a teacher or employer, it is thoroughly worth visiting. Final results for all categories are announced on Sunday night as a gala ceremony. Good luck TeamUK, TM hopes you can do the UK proud in what looks like a teak-tough, fiercely competitive challenge.