While the IRTE Skills Challenge is neither the first nor the only competition for vehicle technicians, it may be the one to have had the biggest impact on the bus and coach sector. Existing HGV technician challenges organised by each of the major OEMs are tested exclusively on their own brand equipment. Although WorldSkills includes technician tests, it only accepts apprentices. In contrast, the Skills Challenge now caters for both professionals and apprentices in the bus and coach sector, and works across the vehicle brands and technician disciplines. Over the past 10 years, several hundred mechanical, electrical and bodywork engineers have had their turn solving problems and answering test questions at venue S&B Automotive Academy in Bristol.
Lloyd Mason, while he was at bus operator Arriva, originally proposed the idea of a multiple-operator challenge to the IRTE, following the bus operator’s experience running technician competitions to raise standards among the workforce at workshops around the country since the mid-2000s using a fleet of three specially adapted buses. (Today, he refers to it as his proudest achievement of his professional career.)
But in fact the Skills Challenge was never meant to be contested in Bristol; it only ended up there after a college in the Midlands pulled out just before the event. With only six weeks to go, S&B Automotive Academy saved the day. Its director of training and education Richard Belton recalls: “Jon Winter, our chief executive at the time, said yes, without knowing anything about it, or what it entailed. Jon’s motto was never to turn down anything. He would say yes, and then we'd sort out the detail later.”
Preparatory work in this case even included finishing the construction of one of the workshops where the challenge would be hosted; some of the S&B teaching staff, who were already committed to other work during the testing week, volunteered nights and over a weekend to help put on the event.
Belton continues: “It was a bit of a shock to me, that I was going to be running it when it was passed over. And also when I asked at the first meeting, ‘So what tests have been written already?’ and the answer was, ‘Well, none’. But it worked and, you know, we've kept the basic format pretty much exactly the same in that 10 years.”
The event stages a number of tests in parallel across several bays of the company’s training centre; each day, the Challenge invites a few teams, and each competitor takes turns to run through one set of tests, in any order. Belton recalls that the first year there were seven mechanical tests, six electrical tests and four bodywork tests. Over the years, new categories have been added: apprentices, after the first year; a combined mechanical/electrical category, mechelec, a few years later; and a master tech competition open only to previous winners in 2018.
Belton adds that many of the mechanical and electrical tests rely on the sponsors to develop the tests and testing materials. “They come in, they test, they mark, they do everything themselves, so they're involved in the development as well.” Sponsors that have stayed with the programme from the beginning include Knorr-Bremse, Allison Transmissions, Shell and Bridgestone; another long-term supporter has been MAN.
Ashley Brooks, UK & ROI area director for Allison Transmission, recalls: “We could see the potential of this event and the ability to make it a continuing programme. We weren’t wrong – we’ve seen the Skills Challenge grow year on year with more and more teams taking part, additional sponsors and increased media coverage.”
Adds Belton: “I think that one of the key changes was really the DVSA getting involved five years ago; that threw a bit of weight behind it as well.” It provides a vehicle assessment test. Explaining its point of view is DVSA’s director of operations (south) Richard Hennessey. He says: “We were keen to get involved as the Skills Challenge is an excellent opportunity to engage face-to-face with the industry professionals responsible for meeting our safety standards. It also allows us to explain our role and remit directly to the technicians who need to understand the standards we set, and why we set them.”
One of the sponsors with the closest relationship to the Skills Challenge is brake supplier Knorr-Bremse, whose own training school had been in Bristol until it shut in the mid-2000s. S&B’s wall-mounted air brake testing rig, for example, came from that facility, recalls John Simmons, former Knorr-Bremse bus and coach account manager.
“A lot of the issues that we see on a day-to-day basis, and we still see today the same as 20 years ago, are due to a lack of skill. It’s a lack of experience. You’ve got an engineer who may have been working for the bus industry for 25 years, and all of a sudden a new vehicle comes along that’s got an electric braking system on it and disc brakes on it, and he’s expected to repair it. And often they do a very bad job. That’s just general across the industry. So as far as we were concerned, it’s to improve the knowledge and skill within the industry.”
For David Carson, technical engineer for training at Northern Ireland bus and rail operator Translink, bringing back awards from the Skills Challenge is not only good for staff, but also for the profile of the business. He adds: “It was confidence-building as well, that the kind of training we were doing for our staff, and the selection of the staff, and the ability of our staff, are as good as others that are out there. Also, it is a good opportunity to benchmark our skillset against other operators.” He adds that the feedback from the Challenge helps the company to pinpoint training weaknesses; it also exposes technicians to new technology.
Translink has been involved in most of the challenges with Carson as the team manager, a role that he says involves motivating the team, encouraging them and helping them prepare for the challenges in advance. “It’s not just about getting a result; it’s about the process of how to get there. Have they thought through a fault diagnosis process; it [needs to be] logically done, they’re not just stabbing in the dark. There’s also a consideration for health and safety.”
A two-time participant, Kelsie Dugmore, now Arriva North East remanufacture engineer, admits that the event can be nerve-wracking to attend, but the once the competition starts, contestants’ attention shifts to the tasks themselves. (She most recently won the DVSA inspection category as an apprentice in 2018.) She adds: “My main memories of the events are seeing things I hadn’t experienced in the workplace, but using knowledge I had gained there to solve the tasks. I also met some great people who are still friends now. I most definitely learnt new things about the vehicles and inspections, and have since applied them to my day-to-day work.”
As to the future prospects of the event, S&B’s Belton is positive. “I think there’s a long way to go. There’s still interest from bus operators. And this year, more than last year, we had a few coach operators as well; I think that could go further. And we’re still looking to increase the number of teams, increase the number of tests, and widen the categories for the tests.”
BOX: 465 entrants; 166 teams; 25 operators
The Skills Challenge is open to all UK coach and bus operators. Over the years, it has welcomed teams from a substantial fraction of the industry, including:
22 Signals Regt LAD REME
Arriva UK Bus
First Bus UK
Go Ahead London
London Borough of Redbridge
Nottingham City Transport
RATP Dev London
Wilts & Dorset Bus Company
Applications are now open for entry to the 2020 Skills Challenge. Learn more and apply online via: www.is.gd/zipoko