Skills Challenge: ‘A fantastic development journey’

IRTE Skills Challenge testing week took place in June. National Express Training Manager Lee Sandford reveals how it is helping with staff development

Certain events help anchor the coach and bus industry calendar in place, and one of them is the IRTE Skills Challenge. In June, 43 contestants from seven operators – Lothian Buses, Metroline Travel, Trentbarton, East Yorkshire, First Bus, Go-Ahead London, and National Express – met in Bristol take part in the testing week, which roots out the industry’s best performers.

The event is also an opportunity for participants and their employers to identify development areas. For National Express West Midlands (NXWM) Training Manager Lee Sandford, who this year supervised four skilled contestants through the challenge, that development journey is the most important part of being involved.

The four contestants entered by NXWM were Glenn Danks, who entered the Mechanical Technician category; Chris Little for the Bodywork Technician category; Diagnostics Technician Mick Duffy, a first-timer entered into the Electrical Technician category; and Technical Trainer Craig Perkins, who this year returned to enter the Skills Challenge Masters category, encouraged by his win in the Top Scoring Mechanical Technician category last year, as well as his position as runner up in the DVSA Inspection Technician Award.

Challenging day

Lee reveals his team was upbeat this year, with three out of the four returning to improve upon their achievements in 2021. He highlights in particular Craig’s developmental journey in the Skills Challenge Masters category; a tough day spent on tasks which spanned both mechanical and electrical disciplines.

“When we got down to Bristol, he was raring to go,” Lee says, revealing it took a little mentoring to build up Craig’s confidence. “He knew it was going to be difficult. He’s not an electrician, so understood some of this was going to be challenging. But that is the point of it. He went in with an open mind, and when he completed some of the electrical tasks, admitted he found it incredibly challenging; but what was great to hear was that he took away from this that he has development areas in terms of electrical, and skills he needs to brush up on.”

That is also going to help NXWM in other ways. Craig is now involved with a seven-day pilot course for electrical basics, with his learnings informing what fundamentals the course needs to address. “We’re going to see where we end up with that pilot and start tweaking and expanding it to see what we can achieve out of the back end,” Lee says. “It will be good to hear feedback and build the programme that the business needs. It will both help him with his development, and it will also help our business as it moves through its own development journey as well.”

Lee is vocal about the wider benefits that involvement in the development journey has on the business. “It’s about being self-aware and understanding that you can’t be the best at everything,” he says. “Nobody can be. But the bits that we do find challenging are what will lead us to figure out where to upskill or gain extra knowledge, which can make us better mechanics, electricians, or technicians.

“That then helps with confidence, helps the business, and improves productivity. It has lots of positive effects no matter what industry you work in – not just across coach and bus, but every kind of skill.”

A benchmark for levelling up

Another aspect of the Skills Challenge is the opportunity for every operator involved to pit itself against other industry talent, and benchmark the skills it needs to level up.

For Lee, involvement in the Skills Challenge means not just understanding individual development areas but those within the industry. That comes from the discussions with peers, training and engineering managers from around the country that the event naturally fosters, and allows everyone involved to ask how each one approaches challenges differently.

“It allows for that networking and those connections, which open up a vast array of ideas to upskill, cross-skill and reskill our own staff and engineers in areas that we might not have even thought of,” he adds. “It’s not just about an individual development journey; it can influence the development path of all our engineering staff. From a business perspective, that’s where the most value is, and it’s great to have the National Express brand involved in the competition.”

‘All about the journey’

It goes without saying that Lee is grateful, too, that the Skills Challenge provides a much needed showcase for the talent that exists within the coach and bus world, and expresses appreciation for National Express and its commitment to entering the competition in order to be part of that showcase of talent.

“It’s also necessary to send thanks to the Society of Operations Engineers and S&B Automotive Academy for hosting again. I want to wish good luck to all contestants regardless of their operator – this is, after all, about their journey.”

For the members of National Express, the drive home after the event was filled with adrenaline. Now, it is a case of “wait and see” until the results return. But Lee is confident that, however they may look, they will help his team on their journey of progression, and will no doubt encourage them to return next year.