10/10/2011: When an opportunity came about to compete for a place showcasing specialist skills at a major event I volunteered to write the pitch for Pembrokeshire College’s boatbuilding department.
We had a rare chance to showcase the work of one of our departments – MITEC – as part of an international skills and careers fair – probably the biggest ever held in the world – at Worldskills London 2011 at the Excel.
Working as a journalist in Cardiff, it was a BBC assignment about boats, fishing and heritage that had first brought me to Pembrokeshire. I went on to spend several years running a boat charter operation in Pembrokeshire with a business partner and helped him keep seaworthy an old tarred fishing boat he’d had from a long-departed relative.
As the years rolled by, I wrote articles about the now almost extinct Pembrokeshire method of compass net fishing and enjoyed many a boat trip up and down the Cleddau estuary and out to sea. When not working (in Pembrokeshire College’s marketing department) I serve on a local boat club as secretary and spend lots of time on the water and around boating and boat-building enthusiasts, so I leapt at the chance to fly the flag for Pembrokeshire at Worldskills London 2011.
It was really exciting assignment for me and gave me the chance to write from the heart about how boats and boat-building can fire the imagination.
And so it was that I ended up taking a small team of Pembrokeshire boat building students to London for the Worldskills London 2011 event – the ‘Skills Olympics’. We knew what was expected of us, and I’d sorted out the details of somewhere nice and safe to stay (near the maritime quarter in Greenwich) and how to get there, but we really had no idea of the scale of the event we were about to participate in.
Leaving the boys acclimatising themselves,their PR lady went off to the opening ceremony, held at the now brightly-lit 02 which was a short walk from our rented apartment. That event was the first taste that I had of the Worldskills movement – and it was quite an experience.
As I approached the 02 entrance, I became aware of a carnival atmosphere out in the main boulevard. Crowds of youngsters, many in national dress or wearing national colours and waving their country’s flags, were parading around, singing and cheering and celebrating. It was an extraordinary atmosphere, perhaps like one would expect in the Olympic village.
Soon we were signed-in and seated, and then a wonderful show of British national pride was put on by groups of youngsters from all the nations of the UK. Like a high-tech Eisteddfod, they sang, danced and chanted their way through some classics and we had snippets of Welsh soprano; Irish dancing and even a jig around a maypole, before the break-dancers and street dancers took over and livened things up.
It was a lovely, loud show and climaxed with a parade of national teams, very Olympic in style, and then the UK team came onstage to a standing ovation.
But wait a minute, we were not at the Olympics, or Eurovision – we were at the start of a serious competition to find the world’s top skilled youngsters. It seemed extraordinary to me that such national pride, exuberance and energy was being burned up by these teams. I didn’t really get it at all. I did get a bit choked up by the Welsh presentation though, and then I started to melt and maybe then I did start to get it.
These kids are probably not going to go to University. They have chosen or been encouraged to choose, vocational training – to learn a trade or a craft or a skill to get them a job in the real world doing real things. like building, caring, fixing and creating. And finally, on a world stage, at a glitzy event in London, they were allowed to feel proud of that, and of themselves. I started to feel proud of them too.
By the time I got back to my accommodation, I needed a sandwich and some headache pills.
The next day we joined the happy throng on the DLR headed for the enormous Excel conference centre in the Docklands, just the other side of the river. It was my first time there, and I was mightily impressed. I have two negatives – couldn’t get wi-fi on my phone and the noise of thousands of skills competitions (such as welding, plumbing and dry stone walling) along with the audio-visual displays and 100,000 yapping schoolkids sounded to this country-dweller like 20 bells being rung in an echoing bell-tower. On speakers. With full amplification. In stereo. I still have tinnitus.
The place ran efficiently though and everything that needed sorting was sorted, if sometimes at a price. Everyone found something to eat and queues were quickly dealt with. I have no idea how everyone else coped with the noise levels, which were of industrial levels, but the place had a bouncy, happy, youthful atmosphere that took us all in and along for the ride. I found myself marvelling over incredibly complex tiling patterns, brick-laying designs and fibre-optic challenges. The ordinary and everyday became celebrated and put on a pedastal. The youngsters becoming experts in these necessary crafts were focused and impressive. It was a wonderful place to hang out.
My role was to be on-hand to sort out any glitches and generally promote our boatbuilding showcase, which I thoroughly enjoyed doing. I have no problem promoting Pembrokeshire College and the county of Pembrokeshire because I believe in it and live there. I am proud to call Pembrokeshire ‘Home’.
Meeting people from all over the world, who were interested in what we were doing, was a wonderful experience. Hoardes of schoolchildren – from primary to school-leavers, milled round our display and wanted to have a go. It was a heart-warming experience.
The Welsh Deputy Minister for Skills, Jeff, Cuthbert AM, came to see us and listened intently to the description of the boat-building techniques being shown. From traditional wood – to top of the range composite materials which were moulded with a resin-infusion vacuum method applied under an air-tight plastic sheet, turning what was once a messy, sticky process into a bit of a spectator sport. We also had visits from other Government and college representatives from around the world, from the Caribbean to Australia and Denmark.
During my time at the event I also had the chance to see three of our apprentices in action competing in an Environmental Science competition hosted by Worldskills and run by the trade union Prospect (the union for professional scientists and engineers). The team who work at the Valero oil refinery and studying at Pembrokeshire College had made it to the finals – and won silver at the end of the week.
Teams had to come up with sustainable plans for running an imaginary island in a competition to inspire innovation and new ideas. They did really well, under a lot of pressure, with thousands of people spilling round the whole time they were putting together their ideas and coming up with their presentation. All good experience and confidence-building for them too.
One other Pembrokeshire representative at Worldskills London 2011 was Rhydian Williams, who is a technician who teaches carpentry and joinery at the college. Rhydian came tantalizingly close to being picked for the UK to compete at Worldskills, but having not quite made it was still invited down to be part of the supervising and advising team. That’s the clever thing about Worldskills – it strives for excellence, but isn’t elitist. It’s about the team.
The fours days of the expo went very quickly. I fitted in as much networking as I could and enjoyed meeting colleagues from neighbouring Coleg Sir Gar and watching amazing fashion shows and performances from other Welsh colleges including Ystrad College.
Pembrokeshire College was invited to the glittering National Training Awards which was also held during Worldskills at Excel. In a beautifully-decorated auditorium we had nibbles and drinkies with Prince Andrew in his role promoting British business and industry, before going in to a very showbiz dinner which included a mini Ready Steady Cook presentation by tv chef Brian Turner and a good speech from Baroness Wilcox, of the department of business, innovation and skills.
The Baroness started her speech by mentioning she started out as a fish-filleter – very impressed – and ended up in the House of Lords through her own career development and acquisition of skills. The BBC TV ‘Dragon’s Den’ entrepreneur Theo Paphitis was the ‘star turn’ for the evening- and was enthusisastic and engaging.
Having brushed the fibre-glass threads off my clothes, I found myself representing the College on stage; picking up a certificate for winning the NTA Welsh regional competition in the large employer category. I was simply there to represent the college, the award belonged to the HR and Occupational Health departments for their excellent work in staff-training to reduce staff absence, but I felt proud to be there and talk about the college to those on the table with whom I had dinner.
My other task was to chase into town to the TUC Congress House to attend a reception with the apprentices where I had the chance to talk to Baroness Wall, a big supporter of the competition. who had done so much to make the competition happen and bring people together to get it all off the ground. Hearing her enthusiasim and passion for the work being done was again a very inspiring experience.
With my PR hat firmly in place, I was interviewed for Chinese TV news about the reasons why we wanted to show children the skill of boat-building. Our local radio station Radio Pembrokeshire also caught up with me to here how we were getting on in the ‘Big City’.
The event was shown on breakfast TV but there were murmurs that mainstream media hadn’t been too interested in covering such a positive event during a time of fiscal mayhem and high youth unemployment, perhaps missing the point. The Prime Minister and deputy did feel it important enough to come, as did Princess Anne and the Mayor of London.
My last task was to attend a presentation during which it was announced that a UK skills event would be held under the Worldskills brand every year to allow youngsters to experience the huge range of skills and craft training that is available and assist young people in realising the true extent of their choices post-16.
I had one night to socialise with my team and we went to a raman bar for noodles and had some delicious Japanese food. And with my ears still ringing and my head buzzing, I headed west and soon I was back on the Welsh coast with my family, tired but inspired.