Going for gold

sportsmen put their training to the test in Sydney this week, spare a thought
for those sharpening their skills for a lesser-known Olympics. By Elaine Essery

summer saw the first national showcase for vocational skills in the UK when the
Skills Show filled the NEC, Birmingham for five days in July.

event featured the finals of a range of skills competitions, the culmination of
regional heats that had been held across the country. For the first time,
finalists were brought together under one roof to battle it out for a place in
the team which will represent the UK at the World Skills Competition (Skill
Olympics) taking place in Seoul, South Korea, in 2001.

to contestants aged up to 22, the Skill Olympics is held every two years in one
of the 34 member countries of the International Vocational Training
Organisation (IVTO).

Skills is the official UK body affiliated to the IVTO and organises the British
entry. Competitions are held over four days in 40 occupational skills from
agricultural mechanics through floristry and hairdressing to welding.

people compete for gold, silver and bronze medals and diplomas of excellence
awarded to those deemed to have reached world-class standard by gaining a minimum
of 500 marks out of the possible 600.

do better

how does the UK fare on the world stage? The phrases “could do better”, and
“must try harder” sum up our performance to date.

the 1999 Skill Olympics in Montreal, the UK shared 10th place with Brazil,
Finland and Norway out of 33 nations. Taiwan, Korea and Switzerland took the
top three places with scores of 66, 61 and 55 respectively.

took the silver medal in IT, bronze in electronic applications and restaurant
service and gained nine diplomas of excellence to net 15 points – just two more
than Liechtenstein.

John Cassels, chairman of UK Skills, put a brave face on but had to admit, “We
had hoped to do better. There is still considerable scope to achieve more.”

is all the more frustrating that among the employers who support skills
competitions there is little doubt about the importance of the Skill Olympics
and its benefits to business. It provides a valuable benchmarking opportunity,
improves levels of competence and enhances a company’s standing with customers.

a win-win situation as far as we’re concerned. It’s good for the individual
and  the company,” says John Harris,
training manager at BAE Systems in Basildon.

good for the morale and motivation of all our trainees to see our apprentices
do well in competitions. And it’s good for BAE Systems in terms of the image it
presents to customers. We’re competing in the world market, negotiating
contracts and trying to win new business and it’s very competitive, so the competence
of our workforce plays a big part.

want our training to be world class, and competing in the Skill Olympics gives
us signals as to where we are in terms of our training. We’re learning all the

restaurant Claridges had two employees representing the UK in cookery and
confectionery in Montreal and another two are expected to compete in Seoul.
Head chef John Williams agrees that the world competition is a good
benchmarking exercise.

helps us to know where we are from a training point of view and it does show
what we’re actually doing, which I think is very important. You have so many
people making stabs in the dark and saying, ‘London is cooking this and it’s as
good as X, Y and Z’, but that’s not the way to measure. The reality is in what
kind of skills you produce and they’re measured by these competitions,” he

sharpens your skills and gives you the edge to go forward and produce something
better. It’s 100 per cent good for business.”

believes the Skill Olympics is also good for personal development. “I see the
two chaps who represented the UK last year as stars of the future and I know
they’ve grown from that competition. It takes a lot of energy, but competition
is one of the strongest ways to develop people.”

such enthusiasm, in many sectors national competitions have not been able to
attract a healthy number of entrants, relying instead on a small network of
regular supporters – mostly large firms. Which begs the question, is the UK
being represented by the cream of its skilled young people or just by the best
of a small bunch?

the skill in which the UK won silver last year – IT – was one that drew over a
thousand entrants in regional heats from schools, colleges and universities –
but few from companies.

SME talent

Harris would like to see more small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)
putting candidates forward and believes they and UK plcs would benefit.

SMEs are too busy running their businesses, it seems.

are probably very capable young people in SMEs who don’t get a chance to
compete, so we are not getting the best coming forward,” says Harris. “When
we’ve had European funding we have offered free training to employees of our
supply chain companies but they’ve declined as they’re too busy fighting fires
and running the business to train their people. If they turn that down, when it
comes to sending someone away for a competition they’ve got no chance.”

Wyatt, a training specialist with Ford, accompanied the UK hopefuls to Montreal
as team leader. He is passionate about the World Skills Competition but
critical of its low profile in the UK and the lack of national commitment. “How
many people in industry even know about the Skill Olympics?” he asks. “It’s not
high profile and all over the television like the sports Olympics – it should


is disappointed at the lack of media coverage. He tried to secure an “And
finally” slot on ITV’s News at Ten last year showing the team preparing for the
Montreal competition at an outdoor centre in Cumbria. His bid failed.

believes an injection of government funding would help UK contestants compete
on a more equal footing with other nations. “Countries like Taiwan and Korea
put a lot of money in – it is a matter of national pride. Our government has to
put money in if we want to showcase the skills we’ve got and be up there on
that podium,” stresses Wyatt.

of having a team dedicated to training as a national priority, as in other
countries, training of our competitors has to be fitted in around employers and
colleges,” he adds.

of Skill Olympics contestants bear out Wyatt’s remarks on the need for
dedicated training.

Richardson, of Monocon International Refractories, Doncaster, represented the
UK in computer-aided design (CAD). The competition was daunting, he says.

came 16th out of 19 but was satisfied that he had done his very best. “You
think you know everything, but I’ve learnt a lot. Standards were extremely
high. You could tell that many of the people had been doing solid, non-stop
training and it’s no small job trying to compete with that. I think it would be
a good idea to have a month training away from the workplace beforehand,” he

his employer, losing Richardson for periods of training was a small price to
pay for the prestige and the spin-off benefits.

Woolley, senior manager of engineering projects, says, “We released Paul
willingly. The company has benefited in terms of our reputation and Paul has
been able to pass on what he has learnt to the team he works with in the
drawing office.

visitors come round, we boast that we have got the UK SkillCAD champion who
took part in the Skill Olympics. It’s good for business.”

it’s not just from the training aspect that the UK falls down. Our low-key
approach to competition means that UK competitors lack exposure to the
“pressure cooker” environment of international competition.

contests have tended to be of short duration and held in small venues out of
the public gaze.


is heartened, however, by Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett’s
announcement that “the Skills Show should become a regular feature and the
place where the UK team for the Skill Olympics is chosen”.

says, “The Skills Show was the first time I’ve seen a similar situation to the
Olympics. There were people moving around, noise and distractions  – and that’s the sort of arena you’re
operating in at the Olympics. You have to block out the distractions, keep
focused and concentrate on getting the job done. Small mistakes are made when
you are under pressure and it is those that can cost medals.”

a globalised economy, for the UK  to
find itself outclassed on the international skills stage is a blow to
competitiveness. But it needn’t be so.

convinced we’ve got the skills; we’ve got the drive – it just needs to be
released,” says Wyatt. “If you want to win you have to put that extra effort
in. And that means commitment from everybody.”

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