SkillWeld shows young people what they’re missing

The Government is investing in a large range of infrastructure projects over the coming years but there is widespread concern that the engineering industry, dogged by a colossal skills shortage, won’t be able to keep up. Tim Hulbert of Air Products – a sponsor of SkillWeld 2016 and a world leader in industrial gas – explains why he thinks previous attempts to address the problem have fallen short and highlights a more effective way to promote careers in engineering.

A whole new weld
A whole new weld

The Autumn Statement confirmed that the various infrastructure projects in the pipeline will go ahead as planned. But, as we all know, the engineering industry is dogged by a skills shortage that could stop those projects dead before they’ve even started.

Welding, for example, is a skilled trade that is used in almost all forms of engineering but it’s suffering from a severe lack of interest and uptake from young people.

Many opinion pieces blame the skills shortage on the perceived lack of excitement the industry has to offer. However, as a 2015 survey by the Telegraph found, the real problem could well be that young people simply don’t know what a career in a specific trade like welding would entail.

In most of the industry’s previous attempts to address the skills shortage, we have promoted careers under the overarching category of ‘engineering’ – an umbrella term made up of countless individual trades. It’s so broad that it’s hard to imagine what a career in engineering might actually involve and this may be why trades such as welding are not piquing the curiosity of young people as much as we would’ve hoped. But there are some initiatives that have been more successful than others, and the key lies in the detail.

SkillWeld – a competition for skilled young welding apprentices – is a good example and something that Air Products has been a proud sponsor of for the last 17 years. What makes it successful is the way in which it creates a buzz, excitement and a sense of pride around a specific engineering skill, enabling the industry’s future prospects to truly understand what a career in welding could look like. So how does it work?

Winner James Elliott shakes hands with Kevin Sherry from air Products
Skillweld 2016 winner James Elliott shakes hands with Kevin Sherry from air Products

Critically the SkillWeld competition bridges the gap between business and education, encouraging employers and colleges to value and nurture their apprentices, and put them forward as contenders in regional heats.

At the grand final of SkillWeld 2016, ten young welders were put through their paces for three intensive days of competitive welding, much to the awe of spectators. Each of them was tasked with performing various joint configurations and processes on different metals, including low carbon steel, stainless steel and aluminium, to demonstrate their skills across a variety of materials. Judging was conducted through x-rays, pressure testing methods and visual inspections by some of the UK’s leading welding experts. James Elliot, a talented young welder from GE, scored the highest number of points and took the gold medal. All in all, it was a thrilling demonstration of creativity and, of course, skill.

Competitors, subject to certain eligibility criteria, then have the opportunity to test their mettle at Word Skills. This competition sees entrants compete on a world stage to demonstrate their craft and certainly ensures to prove that welding, is a skill and profession to be admired and respected.

After winning the SkillWeld event, James commented that he enjoyed it because it gave him the chance to do new things. Being an apprentice, his job mainly entailed pipe welding, but at SkillWeld he was challenged to weld joint configurations with materials he’d not worked with before. Showcasing the variety and diversity that a trade such as welding can offer is critical to attracting more young people into the profession. Competitions such as this move the focus from talk to practical action – and it doesn’t stop there.

The way SkillWeld exhibits and celebrates welding no doubt gives competitors increased drive in their chosen trade but it also plays a critical role in supporting the industry long-term, by demonstrating the variety of career paths welding can offer.

James follows in the footsteps of previous winners who have gone on to work on some of the biggest infrastructure projects in the world, such as SkillWeld 2013 winner Kurt Rodgers, who now works on Flamenville, one of the biggest nuclear power stations under construction in Europe. Generating profile around diverse career paths such as these helps to put welding centre-stage, and into the ‘mainstream’. It makes it front-of-mind for any young person looking for a long-term career.

Almost every subcategory of engineering involves complex and creative skills that young people should be keen to pursue and master. But if we don’t communicate that, they won’t know what they’re missing!

Of course we do need to continue promoting engineering on the whole; Air Products is proud to promote careers in engineering by supporting Crewe Engineering & Design UTC, but combining those efforts with initiatives like SkillWeld works far better than the more generalist attempts in isolation.

By establishing more initiatives like this, we can more precisely demonstrate the benefits of specific trades and make sure that when work begins on HS2 and the next generation of nuclear power stations, skilled young professionals with a high-level of technical ability are ready and able to deliver. We have a wonderful profession here that we should all be proud of – it’s time to bring it to life and spark the imagination of young people up and down the UK.