Mike Watson

These are unprecedented times for the manufacturing industry. As organisations refocussed their efforts on introducing and navigating new ways of working, I faced a challenge of my own: ‘How could I continue to train apprentices for the WorldSkills Competition, known as the ‘Skills Olympics’ in lockdown?

The UK has a strong track record of competing in WorldSkills, with our team of apprentices winning 19 medals at the event held last year in Kazan, Russia. As the WorldSkills UK Training Manager for the CNC Milling Competition, and a former competitor myself, I knew that with the EuroSkills and WorldSkills events due to take place next year, any break in training would be disastrous and could mean the difference between winning and losing a medal.

I was determined that despite the challenges that the manufacturing industry is currently facing, I would do whatever it takes to continue training.

Introducing the WorldSkills UK CNC Milling Squad

Making up the CNC Milling Squad are three extremely talented apprentices: Joel Keen who works for Rolls-Royce, Carwyn Roberts who works for Airbus and Abigail Stansfield who works for BAE Systems. They were selected after excelling in the WorldSkills UK National Finals at WorldSkills UK LIVE, the country’s largest apprenticeship, skills and careers event. There is only one place available to represent the UK on the world stage in CNC Milling and whether its Joel, Carwyn or Abigail who is successful, they will experience an incredible journey that will hugely benefit their career. Representing your country on an international stage and competing alongside talented peers with the aim of being crowned the best in the world at your skill is an opportunity like no other.

When I first started working with all of three, I was particularly struck by their professional attitude and commitment, but like many other trainers I was conscious that without our face-to-face training sessions and access to machinery, one of the biggest challenges I needed to overcome was keeping them motivated and engaged with the programme. I also couldn’t ignore the personal challenges they were each facing around the uncertainty that Covid-19 was having on our lives. While there may still be unanswered questions on this, what we do know is the impact of competition training on improving the future employment prospects for young people. Last year, 95 per cent of WorldSkills UK National Finalists said their personal and employability skills had improved after competing. 

To win big at WorldSkills we not only mould and grow well-rounded individuals for competition, but we also empower them with skills for life. It was this thinking that underpinned the remote training that I devised. However, I knew that for this training to be successful, I needed the support of industry. They didn’t disappoint.

Support from Industry

I know how well regarded the WorldSkills Competition is in the manufacturing industry and this is shown in the support I received to help move my training programme online. Businesses around the world support the event because they know training for the competition enhances a young person’s apprenticeship, helping employers improve their productivity. The event is also the only global platform that exists for us to promote our industry to the next generation of engineers.

CGTech has granted us permission to use its machine stimulation software, VERICUT, for free. This has proved to be a great tool for the apprentices who are based throughout the UK. They have been able to test their programs ‘on machine’ to check for errors in programming, for example tool clearance. They have also been able to analyse the tool as it cuts to provide them with detailed information to be able to push the machines faster. It is this skill and accuracy that could mean the difference between medalling or not at WorldSkills.

Mastercam has also lent its support to the apprentices by letting them use its latest software free of charge as well as providing bespoke training. A three-day tailored course for WorldSkills and WorldSkills UK was devised to support the apprentices in using the software. The course was delivered through conference software and a dedicated online classroom for the apprentices. The online classroom has really helped when having to teach without contact. Weekly assignments have been added, as well as help guides. The apprentices are alerted when deadlines are approaching for assignments and I am also notified when work is submitted for marking. All of this is stored and can be used to teach future competitors so they can learn from past competitions.

Alongside the practical training, we have discussed the specific skills and techniques that underpin international best practice in CNC Milling. An understanding of this will not only help apprentices in competition but it will also support their career progression from apprentice to a senior position within an organisation in a relatively short amount of time.

The intensity of both training and the competitions can be mentally taxing on the young people we work with and never more so than in these challenging times. WorldSkills UK has responded to this by moving its boot camps online. This means that the squad are still able to participate in performance coaching, performance psychology and physiological wellbeing sessions to help them create a "medal-winning" mindset. Our performance and wellbeing coaches have also adapted to support Squad UK members at this time, and I know we have all found these sessions invaluable

Our training for EuroSkills Graz 2021 and WorldSkills Shanghai 2021 is not what I initially planned, but I am confident that despite new ways of training, Team UK will deliver a performance on the international stage that we can all be proud of.

Mike Watson, GKN Aerospace and WorldSkills UK Training Manager

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