From October 4-8 the ExCel centre in London was transformed. Its vast halls became factories, maintenance workshops, beauty salons, kitchens, construction sites and design studios as WorldSkills London 2011, the Olympics of skills, pitted the brightest vocational talent from 51 nations against one another. Jane Gray reports.
The premise of the WorldSkills competition is to allow young people to take pride in their vocational talents and provide the opportunity for nations to benchmark how well they are supporting the development of key business and industry skills in relation to their global competitors. The event has been running for over 60 years and has a track record of making a real impact on national economies and approaches to education – following the Helsinki WorldSkills competition in 2007, Finland recorded an 8% rise in enrolment onto vocational qualification courses.
The UK government has been keen to replicate and better this effect in the UK. As the need to rebalance the economy has risen to the forefront of political debate, so the need for advanced vocational skills and a rebalancing of British education values has become apparent. In recognition of this, government gave a mandate to the Edge Foundation, an independent organisation with the remit of raising the status of vocational education, to push forward a bid to host the competition.
Hosting bids for WorldSkills work on a similar premise to those for the Olympics, and just as the 2012 bid for that renowned contest promised to create a lasting legacy for sporting excellence, so the UK bid to host WorldSkills promised that the event itself would only mark the beginning of a far broader campaign to ignite enthusiasm for vocational skills and the ability to practically apply talent. In 2006, at the close of the Melbourne WorldSkills competition, it was announced that the UK bid had been successful. For the first time in 46 years, London would welcome thousands or visitors and competitors to this unique event.
Yet despite the heritage and size of WorldSkills – it is the world’s largest vocational skills competition – it has a surprisingly low profile in many countries, the UK included. On being asked if he was satisfied with the coverage and sense of anticipation built up for WorldSkills London 2011 David Harbourne, director of policy and research for Edge and a close partner in UK campaign for WorldSkills said: “Awareness among the public and employers has been disappointing,” and this is in spite of promotional events like the ‘Have a Go’ fair at City Hall, London in March which was attended by Skills Minister John Hayes and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.
Mr Harbourne’s impression of a rather uncommitted build up is echoed within the WorldSkills press team. While coverage from some trade publications has been consistent, mainstream press has only dabbled in communicating the scale and significance of WorldSkills. The importance of vocational talent and its potential to make or break the future economic prospects of nations did not even hit national front pages or television screens when Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg led the opening ceremony for WorldSkills at the O2 Arena with a rabble rousing speech on just this theme.
Despite high hopes that the team would stake a claim on the medals table the final results showed an unexpected slither down the rankings.
On interviewing the team after the event TM learnt that this unexpected slump was not due to nervous errors – nor to being outclassed by other competitors – but rather to a freak event beyond the team’s control.
The Manufacturing Team Challenge requires competitors to pool a wide range of manufacturing skills, from metal cutting to electronics and CAD/CAM manipulation in order to produce a mini moto. Rival bikes in the competition are judged on environmental credentials, cost effectiveness, quality and performance.
Sam Andrews, a team member explains: “After completing a series of challenges for our mini moto over two days of competition we finished final maintenance work and announced the bike on the Friday evening.” According to competition rules once a bike has been officially declared no more maintenance or repair activity can take place – a disaster for BAE who returned to the competition on Saturday morning to discover one of the bike tyres had concealed a slow puncture with the 10km endurance test still to be undertaken.
“Before the endurance test we were in silver medal position,” says Rachel Carr, Dignified in defeat also a team member, “but in the end the flat tyre caused our engine to burn out after just a few kilometres and we dropped six points. It’s gutting,” she concludes.
In spite of this disappointment all the BAE team members are enthusiastic about the experience of competing at WorldSkills. “I would do it again in an instant,” says Kai Burkett, the final team member. “It is really inspiring to work alongside such talented people from around the world and, although I didn’t notice at the time, it is incredible to think that Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister came by and watched us at work. To represent you country is an unbelievable experience.” The Team UK training manager for the Manufacturing Team Challenge, Carl McKenzie-Brown speaks with pride of the team’s reaction to their disappointing finale. “It is a testament to their maturity that they have been so dignified in defeat,” he says. Furthermore, despite the disappointment Mr McKenzie-Brown, who is also early career, education and development coordinator at BAE Systems says that the competition will yet bring fortune to the young trio, “Competing against such a high calibre of international skills and meeting the requirements of this extremely demanding challenge has put this group about five years ahead of their peers in term of the breadth of their skills portfolio, including management and budgeting skills. They are, and will continue to be, a credit to the company.” The eventual winner of the Manufacturing Team Challenge was the Japanese team and despite the twist of fate that set them back Rachel Carr is adamant that the right team got the top spot. “They were the clear winners,” she says. “Their performance was just incredible – out of a possible total of 600 points they scored 570.”
In defiance of the odds
With limited publicity it would not have been surprising had WorldSkills London 2011 turned out to be something of a squib.
But in the end, the event itself was a huge success. Record breaking visitor numbers (more than 200,000) attended the event halls at the ExCel which found its ample exhibition space stretched to capacity for the first time ever. The engineering and manufacturing technologies area featured prominently in this display with around 35,000m2 of floor space given over to robotics, welding, CNC milling and turning, CAD design and much more.
Sadly for the UK, while it proved to be an outstanding event host, the results of the competition show that lack of investment and support for vocational training over the past few decades has put it at a disadvantage when it comes to the ambitious development of key industrial skills. A quick glance at the medal table (see p20) shows that any assumption that Britain will remain unassailable as a location for highskilled industry, while countries like China, Indonesia and Korea simply foster low skilled, low quality, high volume production, is a dangerous complacency.
According to Matt Bell, director of CAD Skills UK and a mentor to Ryan Sheridan, one of the UK’s two bronze medal winners in the engineering and manufacturing technologies skills sets, this complacency is common. With particular relevance to computer aided design he says: “There is very low awareness about the need for CAD skills and the breadth of possible career applications both in schools and in industry.
CAD has changed dramatically in the last 5 to 10 years both in terms of the technology itself and in terms of the types of companies using it. We have not kept up in the UK.” Mr Bell’s protégé Ryan, and his employer Motherwell College are exceptions to this rule. As with the whole Team UK cohort for WorldSkills, every attention has been given to provide Ryan with the best coaching and the latest technology platforms.
He has flourished under the attention despite suffering from chronic nerves in competitive environments. Prior to winning the bronze medal at WorldSkills London 2011 Ryan was also awarded a gold medal in his category at EuroSkills 2010.
For WorldSkills’ 150 commercial partners, part of their ongoing commitment to the competition, and indeed their own core values, is to provide a support infrastructure for budding talent and to expose the industrial opportunities available to those with key engineering and manufacturing aptitude. According to Bell, Autodesk, the global CAD vendor and developer, sets itself apart from its peers with the resources it pours into education and career guidance.
Autodesk provides its latest software packages free to universities, organises school visits and has recently launched a new professional accreditation framework for CAD users in industry in partnership with IET.
In other engineering and manufacturing skills areas companies like Mori Seiki and Festo are also raising the bar for private sector support of industrial skills development. Without their donation of equipment and expertise to the WorldSkills organisers the competition would simply not be possible.
Legacy and ambition
In the aftermath of WorldSkills London 2011 Edge and sector skills council, Semta are among those leading the way to make good on the promise of a competition legacy.
Mr Harbourne says that Edge will focus on animating the WorldSkills alumni. “Past competitors are a powerful force,” he asserts. “For the most part these individuals are just waiting to be asked to take action. If you speak with them they are hugely enthusiastic about their Worldskills experience. Edge will help to mobilise and organise this alumni. I am convinced that if this community can capitalise on the strength of this year’s WoldSkills event then we will see a significant increase in the profile of vocational education.” Edge will also be involved in putting forward suggestions for ways in which the WorldSkills competition might develop.
“We are looking for more team based competitions to be included,” says Harbourne.
“While it is brilliant to showcase the skills or one individual the fact is that, in business, no one is an island. Being able to enhance the skills of others is another level of performance.” As well as fulfilling their primary responsibility to drive forward UK applicants for WorldSkills, Semta are also working to develop future competition categories. This year it has fielded a new competition for Environmental Science. This has been warmly received by the administrators for WorldSkills 2013, due to be held in Leipzig, but its official inclusion in the WorldSkills portfolio will depend on the wider response of other competitor nations.