'How long have we got left? About 30 seconds'

1st July 2011 at 01:00
Students competing for a coveted place in the British team at the 'Skills Olympics' have demonstrated determination, dedication - and sheer nerve

With music blaring through headphones, their eyes fixed on the screen before them and fingers hovering over mouse buttons, the row of students look as if they could be competing in a video-game tournament.

Instead, they are student graphic designers, working against the clock to try to produce the most creative, most accurate designs to a precise brief. Their prize is a chance to compete for Team UK in WorldSkills 2011 later this year.

This is one of the selection events, taking place at North Warwickshire and Hinckley College's Nuneaton campus. In the same room are flower arranging and programming robotics.

WorldSkills, which will pit 1,000 competitors from 53 countries in 45 disciplines against one another, is nicknamed the "Skills Olympics". Comparing vocational skills to sports may seem a stretch, but anyone who has been glued to TV shows such as MasterChef will know how intense competition can be. I am told that tears have already been shed during the four days of selection.

Aware of the potential for drama, organisers are in talks with BBC3 about televising the event in London in October. But the film crews will have missed the development of students who have been training for 18 months for this moment.

By the time of the competition, the contestants will be the recipients of a huge investment by the National Apprenticeship Service, which manages Team UK, of up to #163;90,000 per competitor. That pays for intense training intended to raise them from the equivalent of A-level standard to graduate-level in under two years.

The two contenders for graphic design are Matthew Fitzgerald, until recently a North Warwickshire and Hinckley College student who now works in industry, and Jonathan Cleave, a student at The Arts University College at Bournemouth.

"I'm a completely different person: more confident, more outgoing. Just a better person in general because of the situations you get put into and have to deal with," Matthew says.

Jonathan says he has improved "200 per cent". Both agree that their capacity to work at speed and under pressure has increased enormously.

Their training has ranged from intensive 10-hour software training sessions to teach them every shortcut, to regular assignments on top of their studies or work. "Technical skills now have become a given. What sets you apart has to be your creativity," Jonathan says.

Competition is tough. Simon Bartley, chief executive of WorldSkills London 2011, emphasises that if the points difference between first and second in graphic design in the competition in Japan four years ago had been mapped on to a 100-metre race, it would have been equivalent to 0.1 seconds.

The search for Team UK began with 1,500 under-23s drawn from colleges, universities and employers all over the country. Of these, just 86 made it to the final selection days, and only 40 will take part in October in events from stonemasonry to mechanical engineering.

On Wednesday the winning team was announced: it is Jonathan who has made the cut. His fellow Team UK members are drawn from colleges such as Askham Bryan and Leeds College of Building, universities such as Middlesex, and employers from Rolls-Royce and the Royal Air Force to small businesses.

Speaking before the selection was revealed, the designers say that, after 18 months of camaraderie, there would be no ill-feeling from whoever missed out.

"We've basically lived together," says Jonathan, as Matthew adds: "Much to my girlfriend's disgust."

Jonathan goes on to say that they were already firm friends with many of those who have dropped out along the way. "They're basically friends for life. They're the only ones who understand what you've been through."

But for UK graphic design, there is a problem: the Canadian. Many countries, including the UK, send their contestants abroad to compete in each other's trial competitions as practice for the main event. The selection event is noisy and it is hard to concentrate: WorldSkills itself will be even worse, with an expected 100,000 visitors over the course of the competition.

The Canadian is, unfortunately, the star performer. But Stuart Youngs, creative director at London design agency Purpose, has a plan. An award-winning designer, he became one of the expert mentors for Team UK after learning about WorldSkills from his client, City and Guilds.

As the UK's graphic design competitor, Jonathan will be attached to Mr Youngs' studio for three months, where he will be subjected to what sounds like a gruelling regime of galleries, parties and cutting-edge design work to sharpen his creative faculties.

Employer involvement is seen as crucial to making sure WorldSkills has a lasting legacy in the UK, and is not just a one-off event. Equally important is the continuing involvement of the WorldSkills alumni, former competitors who return to pass on their skills and experience to the next generation.

Pastry chef Will Torrent came sixth at WorldSkills Japan in 2007 and now works as a consultant for Waitrose, creating desserts with Fat Duck superchef Heston Blumenthal such as the supermarket's Royal Wedding trifle.

He is now part of a three-generation team of mentors that includes his own former lecturer Yolande Stanley, who now teaches at Westminster Kingsway College, and Professor John Hubert from Thames Valley University, a culinary legend credited by Michel Roux with being the originator of the UK's pastry expertise.

They are pinning their hopes on a young trainee from Raymond Blanc's restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, Stefan Howells. He is crafting an intricate array of petits fours. It takes a while to notice that he and his competitor, a Norwegian looking for match practice, have also made two-foot-high sugar sculptures - they look like blown glass vases at first sight.

Work is incredibly calm. I ask Mr Torrent how long they have left: "About 30 seconds." But there is no hint of panic. Mr Torrent attributes this to the work of Brathay, a charity which works to build confidence in disadvantaged young people and provides leadership training for blue-chip companies. Its task is to make sure the team has the mental toughness to withstand the pressure.

Brathay takes contestants on team-building exercises and gives them training in motivational techniques such as neuro-linguistic programming.

Mr Torrent testifies that it has worked. "Day three is the danger day, when the end is just in sight. For me, everything started to go wrong," he says. "I got rushed off into an office so no one could see me: the Brathay team calmed me down. I came storming out of the office, and I ended up doing the best job I've ever done and got the highest mark."

Since then, he has been runner-up for the Lacam Trophy in 2008, Le Cordon Bleu's award for pastry chefs, and won the young chef of the year award at the Craft Guild of Chefs in 2009.

"I had about 25 years' experience packed into a year and a half of training," he says. "I'm a massive sports fan, so being told I was going to represent my country in the skill that I'm passionate about was amazing.

"It gives you confidence to say: 'I'm sixth in the world, I beat France, Germany and Switzerland at their own game. I'm one of the best young pastry chefs in the world'."

Both his parents are teachers, and he has spoken to pupils at their schools about careers. He recalls one student who wanted to be a plumber like his father, but his parents wanted him to go to university. "I told him he could be a plumber, and could represent his country in a world competition for plumbing, and his eyes lit up."

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