All his own work: Lewis Greenstock, the WorldSkills UK bricklaying finalist, received a medallion of excellence at the competition finals in Kazan, Russia, last month.
The competition was really well organised and planned, the venue was superb, and I was well impressed by the opening and closing ceremonies in a pretty full 55,000- seater football stadium. It was the biggest competition I've attended and the one that has inspired me most. President Putin was very much in evidence and spoke at some length at the closing ceremony about the importance Russia placed skills on its economy.
They invested very heavily in the competition. Like China, their competitors have been in training full-time almost 3 1/2 years and are hothoused - they are not working bricklayers, carpenters or chefs. Where we differ is that our competitors, like Lewis, are actually working in the industry as bricklayers, chefs, hairdressers, etc. Lewis, for instance, probably trained for between 15 and 18 weeks.
It's a fine balance as you have to keep employers happy - our finalists are all high-quality employees and their employers find it difficult to release them because there is a financial aspect to it. Yes, they would like more time to train but they also have to balance company budgets. The finalists have a working life as well so I guess somewhere in the middle of the two approaches would be the perfect formula. Of course, it does make it more difficult for us to reach the top international rankings - this year China and Russia were first and second. It’s just a matter of different approaches taken by different countries.
In bricklaying, competitors did not see their brief before the actual competition began – in the past in some sections competitors have had up to three months beforehand to rehearse. But now competition tasks only get released maybe an hour before the finals start, so it is a true test of skills and thinking on your feet. I think WorldSkills are seeking a balance in approach between a rehearsed ‘robotic’ approach and the daily reality of being a practising skilled practitioner in whatever craft or the skill they do.
Yes, I think our regional and national structure is well-organised and publicised within colleges and the education system. The aim is to drive up standards and a lot of what happens in international competitions is then fed back nationally. Every year levels of excellence are moving upwards.
Lewis did well. He was one of 15 UK finalists who received medallions of excellence along with our two amazing gold-medal winners in beauty therapy and aviation maintenance, a silver in car painting and a bronze in hairdressing - a fantastic achievement. It was a wonder to see the look of realisation of winning on their faces and you could see all of our students who received medallions of excellence were thrilled to bits. Of course, it can be very upsetting for those who come away with nothing after 18 months training apart from a finals certificate, but the experience of getting to the finals is something they will always be able to treasure - they were, after all, the best in their country. It’s a real emotional rollercoaster both for tutors like myself and the finalists.
He was given 22 hours over four days and was emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted at the end. He split the task up into three six-hour days and four hours on the final day. In that time he had to build five brickwork wall-shaped models and had to decide how to break down the job into bite-sized chunks and which aspects to concentrate on in order to pick up certain points and complete on time. There is a lot of pressure on finalists to demonstrate good planning, accuracy and speed. The competition is all about pitting yourself against the best in the world; it is the Olympics of skills competitions so it’s no walk in the park.
When Lewis had completed all five models, they combined to spell out the word ‘Russia'. It was a totally unique task and cleverly put together, involving a range of techniques in bricklaying, including producing cantilevers and angle cuts to help create the shape of the letters, and the completion of various other skilled technical tasks.
Competition is very intense and Lewis had a slow start over the first couple of days. He made a few rather uncharacteristic errors and I put it down to the intense pressure of competition. So I spent a lot of time helping him calm down and relax during the time tutors were allowed to talk to their students during the competition. We had 30 minutes both at the start and the end of each day of competition where we'd discuss an action plan for the next session, review his progress so far and think rationally about the project. When Lewis admitted how he felt he was doing, we’d talk through it. But he really pulled things back and made great progress on days three and four. I did not think he was going to finish as he had taken longer in the first few elements than he had planned and he was always up against time. But I helped him decide how he was going to complete his tasks and it all worked out well. He had no time left over at the end when he was just cleaning off the brickwork, doing finishing touches. In fact, at least seven of his fellow competitors didn't finish, so he did really well to come back from a slow start and win his medallion of excellence.
The medallions are awarded based on scores gained across the competition and then an average is worked out. They show if you have achieved the required percentage mark to reach an international standard - and not everyone in the competition gets one.
Ideally, we need masterclasses for people who are not involved in or as successful in the competition so that they can enhance their understanding of what it means to reach excellence at a particular skills level. There are plenty of skilled practitioners in the UK who could pass on their knowledge and share best practice through masterclasses. It would also be great to get more college senior management teams and employers to recognise WorldSkills and other skills competitions as a benefit worth investing time and resources in alongside other college and workplace priorities. It’s a win, win!