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New wave of engineering talent

Two teenage whizz kids show there will be plenty of ability to oil the wheels of the energy industries. Jean McLeish reports

Two teenage whizz kids show there will be plenty of ability to oil the wheels of the energy industries. Jean McLeish reports

Two teenage whizz kids show there will be plenty of ability to oil the wheels of the energy industries. Jean McLeish reports

Next time your central heating goes on the blink and you can't find anyone to fix it, give a thought to George and Hayley.

They're in second year at Ellon Academy in Aberdeenshire, and they've come top in an engineering challenge involving more than 1,000 teenagers in the north-east. George Owen, 13, and Hayley Johnson, 14, are smart operators. Not only could they probably fix your heating - there's a chance they could sort it out in less than 10 minutes.

That's how long they got for each task in the final of the Schlumberger Schools Engineering Challenge. So there was no time for the sighing or head-shaking that usually accompanies domestic repairs.

George and Hayley were faced with practical and offshore-related tasks, which they managed in record time - one in an impressive 46 seconds. It wasn't all kids' stuff either - before they got through to the final, they were designing, building and operating pneumatic circuits based on a demonstration and a drawing.

The event is organised by Banff and Buchan College in partnership with international oil service company Schlumberger. The aim is to raise awareness of skill shortages in the energy industry and encourage new recruits.

Hayley and George were up against couples from another four schools in a Mr and Mrs-style competition for technical whizz kids. There was a boy and girl in each pair, and teamwork and good communication were key to success.

Staff from Banff and Buchan College visit schools throughout the year and stage a series of heats before the grand final at their campus in Fraserburgh. George and Hayley had beaten more than 200 second-year students at their school before going head to head with pupils from Mintlaw, Turriff, Meldrum and Banff academies.

They describe how they tackled some of the final challenges: "We got two walkie-talkies and George had to go behind this partition," says Hayley. "I got two photos of a shape from different angles, and I had to describe the shape to him, and he had to build it with the blocks behind the screen. That took us three minutes."

George says: "For the next one, I had to disassemble a valve and Hayley had to put it back together again, exactly as I had taken it apart."

But their speediest effort was when Hayley had to get George into an offshore survival suit and inflate the lifejacket, which took them less than a minute. "If you weren't working as a team, you wouldn't have been able to get a lot of it done as fast," George says.

He and Hayley each won a laptop and the runners-up from Meldrum Academy won video iPods.

Bob Sinclair, principal of Banff and Buchan College, says: "We are finding a real appetite for the energy industries, and in fact we are turning people away this year for our courses. For one engineering course with 16 places, we have had upwards of 70 applicants."

The college offers HNC courses across a range of engineering disciplines, including day-release options. "So someone who's going to stay on to S5 and 6 can undertake our HNCs in mechatronics, electronics and mechanical engineering, and that almost guarantees them jobs with some of the top engineering companies in Aberdeen," says Mr Sinclair.

For George and Hayley, the future is uncertain, and neither would be drawn on career plans. For the moment, they are concentrating on getting to grips with the new laptops.

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