The Desert Diaries: NAIT at WorldSkills Abu Dhabi 2017

NAIT president and CEO reports from the "Olympics of the trades"

What's the "Olympics of the trades"? It's where roughly 1,300 competitors from 60 countries gather to compete in more than 50 events. This October, the bienniel contest and conference is in sunny, sandy Abu Dhabi – where NAIT president and CEO Dr. Glenn Feltham is reporting on it as part of the NAIT delegation to WorldSkills 2017.

Here, we've collected his dispatches on the event that has elevated the trades since 1950, shining a spotlight on skilled tradespeople and their professions.

Dr. Feltham will cheer on 3 NAIT-educated apprentices: Ryan Matsuba (Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Mechanic '17), Aaron Taves (Automotive Service Technician apprentice) and Ryley LaFrance (Electrician '16), each of whom earned their place on Team Canada by excelling in their professions and earnign medals at previous skills competitions. He'll offer a global perspective of the role of trades in industry and the economy – and in shaping the lives of the young people who make their careers in them.

We hope you enjoy Dr. Feltham's Desert Diaries.

Oct. 13 – A love for WorldSkills
Oct. 16 – The events begin
Oct. 20 
– Competition unfolds 

WorldSkills 2017 abu dhabi setup

Oct. 13 – A love for WorldSkills

It is impossible to attend WorldSkills without developing a deeper understanding of, and a passion for, the skilled trades. And to feel an even greater sense of pride in NAIT and in Canada. There is much to learn from other countries, and other countries have much to learn from us. This will be my third time attending WorldSkills, having previously gone to London in 2011 and Leipzig in 2013.

So, what is WorldSkills? It is essentially the Olympics of skilled trades. I know – this sounds like an overstatement. But it’s not. The event is ginormous! People come from around the world. The events are at an incredibly high level. It is insanely intense and nerve-racking.

The country to beat? Korea. The Germans and the Swiss are always very strong, but the Koreans are formidable. 

The Canadian team includes 3 competitors from NAIT – an incredible accomplishment for Ryan, Aaron, Ryley, and for us. In the coming days I will let you know more about them and their competitions. And try to provide a flavour of a competition I truly love.

Why do I love WorldSkills? The event elevates the understanding of the skilled trades around the globe. It changes perceptions and builds parity of esteem. It provides an opportunity to see best practice and emerging best practice in the skilled trades. It provides great ideas. Epiphanies from London led to our Trades-to-Degrees program. And it is insanely nifty!  

WorldSkills truly is too cool for words (although the temperature in Abu Dhabi is expected to be 35 C), but I will try to find words that capture the experience.

Oct. 16 – The events begin

world skills 2017 abu dhabi opening ceremoniesHow do you begin to paint a picture of WorldSkills? It is all so overwhelming. Let me start with the opening ceremonies and first impressions of the site and the action.

Opening ceremonies

The anticipation was palpable at the WorldSkills opening ceremonies. Held in the open-air du Arena on Oct. 14, the event had long ago been sold out.

There were royals, acrobats and performers, a parade of competitors, an oath, motivating words from people we had never heard of, and a gimmick: each of the skills events was illustrated through dance.

Canada had a small but enthusiastic presence, and the competitors carried the Canadian flags proudly. The Swiss, French and Germans had very large delegations, and were the most boisterous – soccer songs spontaneously erupted.

The biggest cheer? Mexico had only a single competitor. The crowd erupted!

The ceremony set the stage, and reminded us that WorldSkills is a very, very big thing. It reflects the strength of a nation’s skilled workforce. In this, it is a precursor to countries' future economic power and competitiveness.

worldskills 2017 canada delegationChecking out the action

WorldSkills is massive. In addition to all the competitors, it attracts more than 100,000 visitors. Few cities could host the event.

After receiving our credentials, we thought we would quickly explore the activities. Six hours later, we had still only walked through little more than a half of the competitor space. Abu Dhabi’s convention facilities are not nearly large enough for the event – few in the world are. So they erected tents the size of football fields throughout the site. The facilities and the competition areas are spectacular.

We meandered through it all to find NAIT’s 3 competitors and see them in action. NAIT likely has the strongest presence at WorldSkills of any institution in North America – it is something we believe in. In addition to the competitors we send to the events, we're the source of senior officials in the WorldSkills movement, experts to evaluate competitions, and coaches.

Once we found our NAIT competitors, we watched them for some time. But we never actually made eye contact. They were transfixed on their task!

All events at WorldSkills are at an insanely high level. One should leave skepticism at the door – these are the world’s best skilled youth across a wide range of areas. They represent our future.

Oct. 20 – Competition

aaron taves at worldskills abu dhabi 2017How it works

WorldSkills competitions take about 22 hours over a 3-day period. Most are broken into discrete projects. For example, Aaron’s last project (competing in the picture at left in Automotive Technician) related exclusively to brake systems. Outcomes are evaluated like we'd grade students at NAIT.

What is evaluated? Completing the project. Discovering the faults. Quality. Whether it works.

But also: safety, efficiency, cleanliness and esthetic. While the scoring for most competitions are highly objective (e.g., a weld is x-rayed), some feel more subjective (e.g., hairdressing). In all events points are given (out of 800) and gold, silver and bronze medals awarded. In some competitions the differences in level are obvious to the casual observer (e.g., carpentry) but in others it is impossible for the uninformed to judge (e.g., all the dresses looked amazing).

NAIT’s competitors

I had the opportunity to watch each of NAIT's 3 competitors at different stages. All were poised throughout the competition. All proudly sported Canadian flags at their work stations, with a dash of NAIT and an occasional Ook thrown in (Ryan rocked the NAIT Ook hat). All had strong support groups. Aaron always had 3 people close at hand – his trainer, his father and his former boss from Fountain Tire, where he works in Camrose.

They each competed at a level that should make our country and institution very, very proud. They were professional throughout. And all appeared to be in contention in each stage of their competition. But the distance between first and tenth place is small. They are competing against the best of the best in the world. While none of them ended up medalling, Aaron, Ryan and Ryley truly did us proud. (Canada won a single medal – a bronze in mechatronics, i.e., manufacturing.)

Surprises at WorldSkills

A few things surprised me at WorldSkills. It has been 4 years since I was last at the event. Since then, gender representation has changed significantly. It was wonderful to see so many women in traditional male-dominated trades (welder, stonemason), and many men in traditionally female-dominated trades (stylist, fashion).

An important element of WorldSkills is elevating interest in the skilled trades for the next generation. This was clearly achieved in Abu Dhabi where students from Grades 1 to 12 moved throughout the venues like schools of fish – of note, the female students outnumbered male students by at least 2 to 1. Girls were clearly interested in the skilled trades. And this interest appears to have started in the UAE prior to this WorldSkills. Several of the women in trades at worldskills abu dhabi 2017female competitors were Muslim, including in traditionally male-dominated trades.

Every WorldSkills has something happen that is a little strange – usually with a healthy dose of irony.  At WorldSkills Abu Dhabi this related to the Landscape Architecture competition. Their issue? They didn’t have sand! Turns out that landscape sand needs to have certain qualities. Who’da thought? But the competition advanced following an emergency shipment from Saudi Arabia (or so I heard).

Why Canada lags at WorldSkills

When I tell people about WorldSkills, and why it really, really matters, they then often ask about Canada’s standing in the event. My answer, unfortunately, is that our country lags behind much of the industrialized world.

Canada almost never wins gold at WorldSkills – the last time was 6 years ago in London where a competitor from NAIT took gold in Refrigeration and Air Conditioning. Canada tends to receive a few silvers and/or bronzes.

Why is this so? I believe there are 4 factors:

  1. The competition is limited to those under age 23. The world’s leading skills countries tend to start apprenticeship training around age 14 or 15 – that is, many of the competitors have been learning their trade for 8 or 9 years. In Canada, this is rarely more than 3 or 4 years.
  2. Leading skilled nations tend to invest far, far more in developing their best young skilled trades professionals. Included in this, many more participate in a far larger number of competitions.
  3. There are few institutions like NAIT in Canada – institutions that have a deep passion for, and recognize the importance of, the skilled trades.
  4. Success at WorldSkills matters more to other countries than it does to the United States and Canada. For several countries – including Switzerland, Germany, Korea, China and Russia – results at WorldSkills are a national priority closely aligned to their skills strategies.

So, miles to go before we sleep. Canada can do better. NAIT must lead the change we want to see.

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