A time to skill: Irish awards boost for earn and learn pathway
Young contestants excel on world stage as medal haul provides a shot in the arm for apprenticeships, writes John Walshe
As Olympics-style events go, it is as tough as it gets. Some 19 hours of competition over three days, pitted against the clock and the best in the world.
So for the 17-strong Irish team to come home with four gold medals and a bronze, along with seven medallions of excellence, from a field of more than 1,600 competitors from 63 countries, is a measure of their achievement.
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WorldSkills 2019, which took place at the end of August in Kazan, Russia, is a biennial contest showcasing the sort of skills and careers associated with apprenticeships. It is world's biggest vocational education and skills event, often called the Skills Olympics
WorldSkills rose out of the ruins of the Second World War. The first competition was held in 1950 and Ireland has been taking part since 1957.
This year, Irish contestants competed in Aircraft Maintenance, Beauty Therapy, Logistics, Cabinet Making, Visual Merchandising, Brick-laying, Plumbing and Heating, Restaurant Service and Cookery to name a few.
Ireland's medal count is even more remarkable when you consider that many of the Asian countries involved invest hugely in their contestants, with up to two years full-time training to prepare for the event. By contrast, the Irish entrants got 12 weeks part-time intensive training on top of their jobs or study.
With a comparatively tiny budget of €400,000, Ireland emerged 10th in the world overall, ahead of the UK and other leading industrial countries.
Ray English from TU Dublin, who headed the Irish team, said the success was due to hard work and long hours put in by the contestants themselves, as well as by their trainers and support staff in the Solas training centres, the institutes of technology, ETBs and the TU Dublin.
Megan Yeates, a 22-year-old from Kildare, will never forget the heart-stopping moment when she was called to the podium in Kazan. She knew then she was one of three winners destined to get a medal in the closing ceremony, but had no idea what it would be.
"The presenter announced Russia as being in third place… the silver was announced for Singapore and in that moment I realised I had won gold," she says. "There are no words to describe what was going through my head at that moment, a full roller coaster of emotions. The only thing I can remember is warning myself not to slip on the stairs. I stood on the winners' podium in front of 45,000 people with many thousands more watching around the world," she recalls.
She had just won the top prize in Freight Forwarding, a discipline which involves specialised logistics and supply-chain skills. "This was the moment on August 29 that things changed forever," says Megan, who has been inundated with invitations to speak in schools, address conferences and other events to talk about vocational skills and apprenticeships.
Although Megan had completed a degree programme in logistics in DIT/TU Dublin, there is now a Logistics Associate Apprenticeship.
Last week. she and other members of the Irish team addressed the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills and soon she will represent Ireland at a VET (Vocational Education and Training) Skills Week event in Helsinki, Finland.
The publicity and online discussion about her success and that of her teammates has generated great interest in apprenticeship and vocational skills in general.
Solas, the employment and training authority, says the message is getting through to more and more young people - they can earn and learn in an ever-widening range of apprenticeships while getting a qualification that sets them up for a lifelong career.
The fact that the golds won by Ireland were for high skill areas has helped lift the image of apprenticeships which, for too long, have been seen as mainly for building industry 'wet trades'.
Team members attending the Oireachtas Committee highlighted the need for apprenticeships to be given parity of esteem with the CAO during in-school discussions about careers.
Another TU Dublin student, Olivier Bal Petre, was best in the world in Cloud Computing, while Adam Flynn won bronze in the Industrial Mechanical Milwright category, which involves the use of modern expensive machinery.
Their victories come on top of gold for two others in a related Future Skills contest run in parallel with WorldSkills and designed to identify skills that can become part of the formal competition.
Dubliner Ryan Dempsey (23) and Luke O'Keeffe (20) from Kilkenny scooped the top prize in the Building Information Modelling (BIM) section. BIM uses sophisticated digital representations to help builders, engineers, plumbers, electricians and others when it comes to the actual construction of a building. Ryan is also from TU Dublin and Luke from the Waterford Institute of Technology.
Skills Minister John Halligan, who attended the competition in Kazan, was at Dublin Airport to greet the team on their return.
The Russian political authorities were determined to use Worldskills to send and sell the message of the Russian Federation's achievements in the rapidly advancing vocational education area, particularly in IT and robotics.
The opening ceremony was attended by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the closing ceremony by President Vladimir Putin.
The Irish team was selected at the inaugural Ireland Skills Live event earlier this year and plans are afoot for another Ireland Skills Live contest
Ireland has been chosen to host the next WorldSkills General Assembly and Conference, in October 2020.