The Skills Show, incorporating WorldSkills UK National Competition Finals and the National Apprenticeship Awards, to be held at Birmingham's NEC from 15 to 17 November, marks the start line for the UK's renewed effort to boost the visibility, attractiveness and international standing of vocational occupations.
The event aims to build on the achievements of last year's biennial international Worldskills event, held at ExCeL London last October, as Jaine Bolton, chief operating officer for the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) and UK delegate for Worldskills, explains: "Just as the Olympics have for sport this year, Worldskills London 2011 provided an opportunity to showcase the highest level of skills here in the UK. Some 200,000 visitors came to visit WorldSkills during its four-day takeover of ExCeL London. The event not only showcased the skills of the 1000 young people competing, but also provided visitors with many supporting activities, such as information, advice and guidance; opportunities to have a go at a skill; and to see what the best further education colleges, training providers and employers from around the UK have to offer. Those of us who were involved in WorldSkills London 2011 all felt very strongly that the success of such a landmark event was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion that had to be capitalised on, so that a lasting and successful legacy for the development of skills, further education and Apprenticeships can be achieved in the long-term. The creation of The Skills Show is one of the legacy products that was born out of WorldSkills London 2011."
In fact, the WorldSkills event, although biennial, takes place in a different country each time, so last year's international showcase is not repeatable on home soil. That being the case, The Skills Show is scheduled to run in the UK for the next three years and promises to be a unique annual celebration that sets put to inspire people, pointing up exciting opportunities in further education, skills and apprenticeships and hammering home the vital importance of skills to economic growth in the UK.
Image: Kerry McStea competed in Aircraft Maintenance at WorldSkills London 2011
With NAS as the organisation that manages WorldSkills UK National Skills Competitions - the 'brand owner of the event, as well as one of the funders - The Skills Show itself is jointly organised by NAS, the Skills Funding Agency, as well as private sector firms (via sponsorship) and other organisations, such as further education colleges and training providers. The NAS is working with various partners to deliver the occasion, and in the area of engineering and manufacturing skills competitions, is working closely co-operating with sector skills councils Semta.
Ambitions are high. The Skills Show is set to be largest event of its type in Europe, highlights Ms Bolton, who adds that WorldSkills London 2011 is to date both the largest such international event of its kind and which drew the greatest number of visitors. The target for The Skills Show is 100,000 visitors, taking in, most importantly, young people looking to make a decision about what career and training route they might want to pursue. They will be drawn from both primary and secondary education, although this will be weighted towards students aged 14-16, she suggests, with these coming from all over the UK – including Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England.
Efforts to attract youngsters to the Show are seeing schools that engaged with last year's WorldSkills event, by sending students to London, becoming involved in this year's skills showcase and competition at The Skills Show. Information is being circulated via NAS and Skills Funding Agency networks too. "We're so passionate about it, we want as many people as possible to see competitions first hand, so we are telling everybody," says the NAS' chief operating officer.
Materials are available to help schools plan and exploit the opportunities of their visit to best effect, while, at the show, apart from seeing competition and trying their hand in the 'have a go' areas, students will be encouraged to register their interest via information hubs, so that follow-up contact can be made. Attending schools themselves will also receive follow-up contact.
Apart from stimulating vocational interest in students, a further target for The Skills Show is to engage with employers that have yet to fully connect with the aapprenticeships programme. "We want to get employers to the Show; have them see what vocational education is all about and let them see some of the country's best apprentices, learners and employees, as well as the best colleges and training providers."
Image: KerryChris Downey and Mark Maginty competed in Mechatronics and were awarded a Medallion for Excellence, which means they reached the world class standard in their skill, but narrowly missed out on a medal
And on that note about seeing the best, the NAS' main focus and responsibility within The Skills Show, Ms Bolton offers, is the WorldSkills UK National Competition Finals (63 in total in 55 skill areas) that will take place. Some 700 individuals will be competing, approximately three-quarters of whom are employed; the remainder from colleges, training providers or those preparing to go to university. "Our main focus right now is to ensure that the competitions run really smoothly, that the competitors have a great experience and that they are well prepared for competition. This is the first time that the national competition finals have been held at the same time in one big venue – and it will feel very different to a final which may previously have taken place at a local college."
Indeed, the UK has had a number of skills competitions – SkillWeld, for example - but these have been largely uncoordinated and dispersed around the country in previous years, having been held in colleges, employers' facilities or hired venues. The Skills Show brings them all together under one roof, making it a show where there will be "something for everyone" – from budding florists to aeronautical engineers.
In an effort to increase both apprenticeship engagement and commitment to competitive involvement, employers will get their own guided tours from WorldSkills Alumni (past WorldSkills International, Team UK, competitors), so they will hear first hand "what their experience was like, what it meant to them, how much effort they had to put in to be an international medal winner, and also how it has benefitted their career", says Ms Bolton. And feeding off the enthusiasm generated, the NAS will be launching the next season of WorldSkills UK National Competition activity at The Skills Show, where visitors will be able to find out more and register and enter the 2012/13 cycle of competitions. (For employees, learners, apprentices and education/training providers and employers, registering interest is achieved via www.worldskillsuk.org.)
The ultimate aim, competition wise, is for the UK to perform and achieve at higher levels in the future biennial international WorldSkills competitions. The next WorldSkills is to be held in Leipzig, Germany, from 2-7 July 2013, but the new UK system will not fully see its results until 2015, in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The intention, over time, is that the National Skills Competition, WorldSkills UK, will provide an even bigger and better pool of talent from which Squad and Team UK for the international WorldSkills event will be selected. "By the time we get to Sau Paulo in 2015, there will be a much clearer and direct link between the nationals and the internationals," says Ms Bolton.
There is the small matter of age to consider in all this, and that is that competitors at the international WorldSkills Competition cannot be above age 23 (24 for aerospace skills), which means that those chosen for Squad UK will not be above age 22, thus giving enough time for the competition cycle to be successfully bridged. That said, many members of Squad UK are likely to be younger than 22, it is offered.
Selection for Squad UK for Leipzig started in June this year and was mostly completed in September, with the Aircraft Maintenance Squad to be selected at The Skills Show. Some individuals will also take part in EuroSkills in October, in Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, as part of the training and 'pressure testing' required in the lead-up to WorldSkills Leipzig 2013. Squad UK currently comprises between three to five people per skill area in approximately 30-35 skills. In March next year, Squad UK will be whittled further to deliver the final competitors that have earned a place in Team UK for WorldSkills Leipzig 2013, where one individual per skill will compete.
In terms of skill levels, the journey that individuals travel is from level 3 competence (National Qualifications Framework) to at least level 6 - albeit in a narrow area - but that it is performance to level 7 that wins the international medals, Ms Bolton highlights. As a means to understand this in more familiar terms, level 3 includes AS level or National Diploma type qualifications, level 6 includes a Bachelor's degree, while level 7 has an equivalence of a Master's degree. The highest level in the framework, by the way, is level 8, a Doctorate.
Image: Stuart Millar won bronze in refrigeration at WorldSkills London 2011
Once selected for Squad UK, intensive training is undertaken under the auspices of the NAS, which sees individuals benefit from a performance coach, a training expert and support from the NAS team. Explains Ms Bolton: "Every competitor knows who their performance coach and training expert is, and there's a management structure wrapped around that. Competitors meet with their training expert as often as they need to in order to develop their skill.
"The training expert will set up group or one-to-one sessions, telephone conversations, and projects and tasks. The expert will also talk to the competitor's employer and/or training provider, such that everybody around the competitor will know what they need in order to develop their skills and perform. And all of this is funded; the employer doesn't pay anything, although does have to release his employee, of course. Likewise, travel expenses for international competitions are funded."
With The Skills Show initially financed for three years, it is hoped, says Ms Bolton, that the environment will then continue. "We want more young people and their employees to know about skills competitions and the opportunity to get involved to test and develop their skills. So, we want more young people and employees involved, but we also want to raise the skill levels across the UK. In terms of engineering, we are looking for a much stronger performance at the international level. It is one of the skill areas that is really important to the UK; it is also one of the skill areas that we perform pretty well in, in terms of apprenticeships. Some of the employers we work with will say that an apprenticeship in England compares favourably with any other country, including Germany. But that doesn't always translate to performance and success at skills competitions at international level, so we want to close that gap."
Overall, though, the UK's performance at last year's WorldSkills London 2011 was far from shabby. "In London, we had a lot of competitors achieve the international medallion level (scoring 500 points or above). In total we achieved 13 medals (five gold, two silver, and six bronze) and 12 Medallions for Excellence. So, 25 people [out of 43] in Team UK reached or exceeded the international benchmark, which is a phenomenal achievement," Ms Bolton underlines.
LARGE COMPANY BIAS?
As to any claim that there is a large company bias in this, with smaller companies less able to take part, she offers this: "If you look at the international competitions, many of the employers are small. That's because many of the skills that are being tested are found in Tier 2 and 3 companies. Many of the medal winners in London were from very small companies. I think that is because small companies have a commitment to getting the most out of their talented young people. They are committed and want to do the absolute best for their employees and are willing to support them. The motives are a bit like having an Olympic athlete on the team; you want to support them, even though they may not be completely in it for the company – there's something about the British psyche and wanting to support talented individuals that is really good. But there is strong evidence that the training that they go through to compete internationally, which is very intensive, absolutely does improve their skills and has a very positive impact on the business."
And commitment at the early stages is not a barrier to smaller companies getting involved. At the initial stages, commitment from the employer and employee is "modest", with some preparation time, plus time at the competition (1-3 days) required. Support materials are available from the NAS website to help such efforts.
When competing at the national level, individuals are coached in a number of ways, including via the college or training provider that they work with, or perhaps somebody within the workplace. Sectors may also provide training resources, while the NAS again provides training materials and resources to support preparation. Individuals will also put in training in their own time. At the international level, there is a much greater commitment, for sure, with much more professional support, as previously highlighted. But, perhaps by that time, the company and competitor will have really got the skills competitions bug.
Image: Jake Rambaldini, who won Bronze in Welding at WorldSkills London 2011
Box item 1
The skills events
The skills competitions and activities at any skills show or event can vary, so no two are necessarily the same.
EuroSkills 2012 (www.euroskills.org/cms) takes place at Spa-Francourchamps, Belgium. Skills competitions in the Manufacturing and Engineering Technology area take in: CNC machining; CAD; industrial control technician; welder; mobile robot technician; mechatronics technician; electronic technician. There are 47 skills within the competition as a whole.
WorldSkills 2013 takes place in Leipzig and has 45 skill disciplines. Those in the manufacturing/engineering area include: polymechanics/automation; mechatronics; manufacturing team challenge; mechanical engineering design – CAD; CNC turning; CNC milling; welding; aircraft maintenance; mobile robotics; plastic mould/die development; construction metalwork; and sheet metal technology.
By way of comparison, WorldSkills 2011, held in London, saw 46 skills tested. The manufacturing/engineering-relevant skills were: polymechanics/automation; manufacturing team challenge; mechatronics; mechanical engineering design – CAD; CNC turning; CNC milling; mould making; welding; aircraft maintenance; mobile robotics; construction metalwork; sheet metal technology.