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Skills initiatives tackle the declining interest in engineering careers

The need to develop vocational skills has come into sharp focus over the last few years after a long period during which the traditional apprenticeship was seen as 'old fashioned'.

With apprenticeships back on the agenda, there are a number of initiatives in place in the UK to boost vocational skills. But it's always good to determine where you stand in relation to other countries; in effect, knowing how much more effort needs to be made.

This is something that WorldSkills International has been enabling for more than 60 years; a way for nations to compare and contrast their levels of competency in a range of industrial trades and services. Its mission is to promote global awareness of the essential contribution that skills make to economic success and individual fulfilment. As the organisation attests, 'without skills, there is no global economy'.

The event dates back to Spain in 1946, when the general director of the Spanish Youth Organisation concluded it was necessary to convince youngsters – as well as their parents, teachers and prospective employers – that their future depended on an effective vocational training system. The first national competition took place in Spain the next year, with some 4000 apprentices taking part. Since then, the competition has spread around the world.

This year, WorldSkills takes place at ExCel London from 5 to 8 October. And the organiser of WorldSkills London 2011 believes it will be the catalyst that sparks ambitions of young people across the country. 'WorldSkills London 2011 will amaze people by showing them the endless possibilities their futures could hold and inspire them to gain expertise at the highest level which the country needs'.

Aidan Jones, the event's executive director, said: "We believe that WorldSkills London 2011 will be a huge boost to the UK economy and that it will leave a legacy of young people inspired by skills."

The four day event will see 1000 competitors from 50 countries contesting 45 skills areas. Entrants will be competing for gold, silver or bronze medals, with medallions for excellence awarded to those who achieve the international standard.

The organiser expects the event to attract 150,000 visitors, with some being able to 'have a go' themselves; not only at the final, but also at skills events being held around the UK in the run up to October.

In the last WorldSkills event, held in Calgary in 2009, the UK team came seventh. This year, expectations are high: a top five ranking and 10 medals, including five golds.

MBDA, which has supported WorldSkills since 1989, is skills sponsor for the electronics competition. According to Bernie Waldron, director of manufacturing for MBDA (UK), supporting the event helps the company to provide focused development opportunities for its apprentices that complement academic and workplace learning.

"Vocational skills are the foundation of MBDA's apprenticeship programme, of which we are proud, and are the means by which our manufacturing capability and workforce is sustained. They also provide the basis of technical specialisation, key to our customers needs," he said.

How does Waldron see WorldSkills helping to encourage school students to consider a career in electronics? "Engineering as a rewarding and long term career needs to be promoted in schools. WorldSkills gives a platform with the highest visibility."

What does taking part in WorldSkills bring to the participants? Waldron said: "All participants need to demonstrate capability and aptitude; from high levels of competency in their own skill set, to performance and behavioural issues, such as time management, planning, organisation and working under extreme pressure. All of these are key attributes and success factors."

But it's not just personal achievement. Waldron added: "Our young employees work as ambassadors for the Apprenticeship Scheme, visiting careers fairs, organising workshops at local schools and giving presentations in secondary schools."

Team UK's representative in the electronics competition is Andrew Fielding, a 21year old manufacturing engineer employed by MBDA Systems. He is no stranger to events such as this, having competed in WorldSkills UK electronics in 2008, where he won a gold medal.

"MBDA has had a lot of people enter the competitions," he said. "I knew of their success and wanted to follow them on, so I gave it a go."

Although he wasn't selected for the Calgary event, he managed to attend, then decided to enter again. "I entered a regional competition last year," he said, "and ended up being selected as the UK entrant for the electronics skills competition."

The electronics competition requires entrants to be competent in five areas: fault finding; measurement; assembly, embedded programming; and hardware design. In the regional competition, these skills were examined over one day; in the WorldSkills final, the competition takes place over four days.

Fielding gave an example of the challenge. "We were given a board and had to power it up. The board contained a number of faults which we had to identify and repair." But that was only part of the challenge. "We were also given a temperature control unit to assemble," he added.

Contestants don't know what the project will be until the day; they only know they will be examined in the five modules. "So we have to keep going over everything," he said.

But the effort is paying off, at least in Fielding's case. "I think that being involved in this competition will advance my career by five years, simply because of all the planning and training I've been doing."

The UK was represented in the electronics category at the 2009 Calgary event by Melanie Adlam, another MBDA employee. Her view of the event? "It was a privilege to represent the UK in my skill and to be part of a team of such interesting and skilled people. It's a great experience that you gain a lot from and it is good to get involved, no matter how far you get."

How can you contribute?

Providing resources
Companies can become involved with WorldSkills London 2011 by providing equipment and resources.
Aidan Jones, executive director, said: "In addition to seeking financial sponsorship, we're also offering companies the chance to become sponsors of an international event by lending us the equipment we need for the competitions. WorldSkills London 2011 will be a huge boost to the UK economy and it will leave a legacy of young people inspired by skills. But, for this to be a resounding success, we need the support of businesses who can lend us the kit we need."

From greeting competitors at the airport to escorting guests to helping to manage the media, volunteers will make the event happen, says the organiser. There are opportunities for people of all levels and experience. Some positions require special skills – for instance, a language or specific technical knowledge – but most simply require hard work and customer service.

Volunteers will also be provided with official kit, food and drinks while on duty, a Travelcard and a certificate detailing their contribution.

You can register to attend WorldSkills London 2011 on the event's website, where you can also book for up to four others. People of all ages will be welcomed, with the opportunity to see the competition, to try out new skills and to find out about career opportunities.

Have a go
Have a go sessions offer a way of promoting and demonstrating skills used in the workplace and the jobs needed in the future. These 'bite sized' tasters are intended to ignite a passion to learn, and to provide expert information, advice and support.
The sessions are being delivered by partners such as colleges, training providers, schools, community groups, employer's associations or other organisations.

Contact details
For more information about WorldSkills London 2011, go to

Sparking an interest in electronics
The number of students studying electronics at UK universities declined by 47% from 2002 to 2008; a decline seen to be putting the future of the UK's electronics industry at risk.

While many solutions have been suggested, a number of companies and universities got together in 2010 to create the UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF,

The foundation has ambitious plans: it hopes to be able to provide 160 undergraduate scholarships each year and to have 10 partner universities and support from 100 sponsor companies.

One of the UKESF's main aims is to attract, prepare and retain talent for the UK electronics industry. It's doing this by offering a way for employers in the electronics sector to engage with young people at school and university through to graduate employment.

The aim is to:
• Increase the number of electronics employers working with schools;
• Offer talented school students the opportunity to attend Summer Schools in order to find out about degree study and careers in electronic engineering; and
• Link high calibre students with employers who can offer bursaries and practical experience of the industry.

John Moor, networks director with UKESF founder National Microelectronics Institute, said: "UKESF is targeted at students who have yet to make their degree choices. We're trying to attract the best of them and are looking for those who haven't decided. When we did a study, we found other sectors were getting the best students, so we're looking to influence them to choose electronics. There is good quality talent out there and we want more of it in the electronics industry."

This year, the UKESF ran its first summer school. The five day course for 16 and 17 year old school students took place at the University of Bristol.

The event included a design and build challenge, where participants competed to create the best performing two wheeled balancing robot.

Students also participated in innovation sessions, where they brainstormed ideas for future products, attended lectures from leading UK researchers and met with engineers from leading electronic design companies, including ARM, CSR, Dialog Semiconductor and Imagination Technologies. And, in order to see how electronics is a key enabling technology for scientific research, the students attended the Science and Technology Facilities Council's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Tony King-Smith, vp of marketing for Imagination Technologies, said: "We believe it is vital for companies like ourselves to start engaging with students while they are still at school and this is one of the reasons that we are sponsoring the UKESF course. The UK electronics sector is amongst the best in the world, but we need to attract students back into these courses if it is to remain this way."

While it's early days for the UKESF, it has a long way to go before meeting its declared objectives, in particular, recruiting 100 sponsor companies. "But more companies are coming on board," Moor concluded, "and they will be announced in due course."

Graham Pitcher

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