World Skills: the industry’s best kept secret?

The Staff Canteen

Soon a host of countries will battle it out in the summer heat of Brazil, competing against the best of the best in front of tens of thousands of spectators over several rounds to find the holders of the illustrious title, world champions.

But it won’t be passing, shooting and dribbling that will be put to the test, it will be cutting fringes, replacing pipes, laying bricks, baking cakes, and even flambéing crepes suzettes tableside. This is not Brazil 2014: the World Cup, this is Brazil 2015: World Skills. It may not be particularly famous in this country but around the world the World Skills competition has a huge following with last year’s event attracting over 50 countries and 250,000 spectators, more than double the expected crowd for this year’s football World Cup final. So what is World Skills? It’s a competition to pit the best exponents of different vocational skills from around the world against each other and find the overall champion. There are more than 60 skills on show, from caring to cabinet making, accounting to aromatherapy, refrigeration to roofing and aeronautical engineering to Afro-Caribbean hairdressing.

In the hospitality sector there are three: cooking, patisserie and confectionary, and professional restaurant service. Previously known as the Skills Olympics it takes place bi-annually in different host cities around the world; 2013 was Leipzig, 2011 was London, 2015 will be Sao Paulo. The first competition was held in Madrid in 1950; the UK has hosted it four times and is traditionally strong in bricklaying, stone masonry and electrical installations. Since 2000 the UK has won two golds and several medallions of excellence (awarded for reaching the World Skills standard) in cooking and pastry. However Britain has not fared well recently in restaurant service, with just a single bronze and one medallion of excellence, since 2000 and without managing to field a competitor in 2005 and 2013. However that is something that might be about to change.

The winner of that single bronze in 2009 was Katie Kyrousis, 25-year-old food and beverage training manager at Gleneagles and now World Skills training manager for restaurant service in the UK. Katie was brought into Team UK in a training role last year after the previous training manager, Ian Whitaker of Cairngorm Mountain, approached her boss at Gleneagles, food and beverage director, Alan Hill. “Ian was looking to completely restructure our approach to the competition,” said Alan. “It’s a totally different platform for success now. It’s moved to a different level.” With funding provided by the National Apprenticeship Service and the Skills Funding Agency, and with a more joined up approach across the three hospitality skills, the different level is manifested in all kinds of new training approaches including mental, physical and even dietary preparation. If it all sounds a bit Olympic, that’s because it is. “World Skills is a huge commitment for the competitor,” said Katie, “and it can sometimes be overwhelming. Hence it’s a two-year cycle of competitions and training. It’s not just about the skills; it’s about the personality, the nutrition and the dedication of the individuals. This cycle we’ll be using the base where the Olympic team trained at Loughborough University for the mental and physical side of the training in a very similar style, albeit not quite so intense, as for Team GB in 2012.”

The two-year cycle for next year’s World Skills is already well underway. The Skills Show in Birmingham each November (the UK version of World Skills) provides an initial pool of competitors who are then whittled down over the cycle. There are already four contenders for 2015 in restaurant service but Katie is aiming for five or six. “We’re doing our best, in the hope that we get the best person by holding another selection competition” she said. This week a competition in Southampton with four hopefuls taking part, should fill out the remaining places. Once all the competitors are in place they will go through three stages before World Skills in Sao Paulo next August. First is the pre-squad stage with one competition and a four-day team building exercise at Loughborough University. In June this year comes the squad stage, in which a squad selection competition cuts down the service competitors to approximately three who then become part of Squad UK. This squad is then subjected to ten months of training including so called ‘pressure tests’ where competitors are flown to foreign environments (Australia, Canada and France in 2013) and undergo tests similar to the final competition. Finally in spring 2015 each skill is whittled down to one competitor and Team UK is ready to go. The final team then gets four months of intense training before heading off to Sao Paulo in August to represent their country. After all the preparation comes the big event itself. The competitors will spend two weeks in Sao Paulo of which 4 days will be competition – a total of 22 hours competing against rivals from around 30 other countries in front of a crowd which could number in the hundreds of thousands. For the restaurant service competition, the UK entrant will be faced with a gruelling programme of tests over four modules: fine dining, banqueting, bar service and casual dining. This will cover all kinds of practical service skills, much of which will be table side like flambéing, gueridon work, peppered steak and crepes suzette service

as well as cocktails, coffee, wine and champagne service. The competition will be tough with teams like Switzerland, Australia, Germany (last year’s medallists) and France typically strong in the sector. But Katie is optimistic and has high hopes for all three strands of the hospitality section. “We want to select competitors whose goals are to bring home medals and who are technically ready for the challenge – this competition is about personal development for those individuals and achieving their goals is what we, as training managers are there for” she said. “It would be amazing to see all three medals across all three skills, because that’s never happened before. We’re focusing much more on being a hospitality group, continually developing across the three strands of hospitality, so that’s what we’re aiming for.” This fresh joined up approach combined with the new funding and rigorous training processes should give that lone service competitor a solid foundation from which to emulate Katie’s 2009 success. But more than that, according to Alan and Katie, it is also about giving something back, long term, to the UK food service sector. “It’s great for the future of the industry,” says Alan Hill, “because you’ve got this progression of very well-trained and experienced team

players coming from the World Skills who are there for long term progression within the industry.” “World Skills is almost the best kept secret in the industry,” says Katie, “but we don’t want it to be kept a secret anymore.” So what are you waiting for? Book your ticket to Brazil and support your country.

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The Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 7th February 2014

World Skills: the industry’s best kept secret?