Firing up the NEC… the annual SkillPLUMB final

151121-016Temperatures were running high at this year’s SkillPLUMB final where, following a series of challenging regional heats earlier in the year, 10 of the best young plumbers competed against each other in a bid to be crowned 2015 SkillPLUMB champion.

Now in its 8th year, SkillPLUMB is organised by BPEC, and has the Copper Initiative as its premier sponsor. Competitors went head-to-head in a three day practical task at the Skills Show, the UK’s largest skills and careers event held between 19-21 November at the Birmingham NEC.

In front of a handful of eagle-eyed judges and over 75,000 visitors watching their every move, the 10 brave competitors had to install a small domestic central heating system, a simulated shower enclosure and kitchen with sink and washing machine, together with associated copper and plastic pipework.

Prior to the final, each competitor was given a ‘competition specification’ document, which outlined the tasks and what judges would be looking for, to help them get competition-ready.

Each task had to be completed within a strict timeframe and was marked against tough criteria including bend and joint quality, measuring and marking out, and material usage and overall presentation. Measurements needed to be within +/- 2mm, and the bends within +/- 1degree of the specified dimensions. Visitors consisted of teachers, parents and thousands of fellow students, increasing the pressure to put on a good performance.

Day one of the task saw the finalists complete most of the work on the domestic heating system. At the end of the day visitors were encouraged to get involved, with judges selecting the test points at random using bingo balls picked by audience members. The selected bingo ball numbers corresponded to which points would be marked – meaning the test points were totally impartial.

On day two, competitors moved onto the hot and cold water system, tackling tasks like the sink, washbasin and a simulated shower enclosure plus a bespoke towel rail, all the while having to make sure the associated plastic and copper pipework adhered to the strict criteria.

Jointing of the copper pipework layout was by application of heat and soft solder to produce air tight joints and by use of compression fittings where applicable. The soldering tasks were brought in as to better prepare finalists for WorldSkills. The UK has brought home the gold at WorldSkills before, so the focus is on repeating this by practising the types of skills required at the highest level of worldwide competition.

Judges were astounded by the levels of competence of the competitors, commenting: “The standards are higher than last year – we normally have some idea by the middle of the second days as to who is a contender, but this year we don’t. It’s all too close to call.
“The standards have gone up in the regional heats from last year and so has the nationals.”

Credit went to the competitors’ training providers and employers, who provide first-class guidance to young people across the country.

Paul Dodds, the lead SkillPLUMB judge said: “This year the competitors had to be good at EVERYTHING – in the past it was all about the accuracy of the dimensions – this year they were judged on soldered fittings so they have to be a good all rounder and show a breadth of knowledge.”

On the morning of Day 3, competitors were able to show off their hard work to their friends, families and tutors with a public viewing of the completed test projects. There was then a fun team building exercise where the group (including the judges) were split into two teams and had to build a self-supporting man or character out of a limited amount of materials. One team built a minion (the character from the Despicable Me film) and the other built the Statue of Liberty, with visitors asked to vote for their favourite.

After three demanding days, the finalists were eager to hear the much-awaited results. A celebratory awards event was held on stand during the last hour of the show, which was attended by some of the previous SkillPLUMB winners. The top positions were announced at a Big Celebration in the evening.

In first place and receiving a gold medal was 29 year old Richard Wilson from North East College Scotland and SugPlumb Ltd. Taking second place and a well deserved silver medal was 20 year old Alex Rooney of David Lyndsay Plumbing & Heating and South West College/CITB NI. Third place and a bronze medal went to 21 year old Matthew Jakeman, from Pronto Plumber and Bedford College.

All finalists received some great prizes including tools donated by competition sponsors, workwear and vouchers alongside a competition medallion and certificate.

Speaking after his win, Richard Wilson said: “Nothing beats the feeling of a job well done, and winning this competition was brilliant. I wouldn’t be here without the support of my employer, and everything I learnt at North East College Scotland. This has given me a real boost and I want to make sure that I keep learning and improving my skills.”

Neil Collishaw of BPEC, the organisers of SkillPLUMB, commented, “This year we had a superb set of tasks, which really tested and challenged the finalists. We are very proud of all the competitors – they are excellent ambassadors for the industry and brilliant role models for other young people who are considering a career in our industry.

“Over the three days we had an excellent turnout of visitors who were all really impressed with the standards of skill on display at our stand.”

For visitors and future apprentices, the three day challenge proved highly exciting and motivating. Further inspiration was to be found all over the show, as more than 60 WorldSkills UK national competitions held across different occupations took place in front of eager school children and their teachers.
Neil Collishaw continues: “The finals are inspirational to young people thinking of a vocational career and The Skills Show, with around 75,000 visitors, is an excellent platform to showcase the skills and talents of all finalists.”

If you know someone who would like to have a go in next year’s competition, or for more information about SkillPLUMB, please call BPEC on 01332 376000.