Highlights from the 10th anniversary IRTE Skills Challenge

On 21 October the winners of the 10th annual IRTE Skills Challenge were named. S&B Automotive Academy’s Richard Belton discusses the highlights

The resilience of the coach and bus industry in some of its darkest times was a theme during the awards ceremony for the 10th anniversary IRTE Skills Challenge, which was held on Thursday 21 October.

That was how Chief Executive Officer at S&B Automotive Academy (which hosts the event in Bristol) Phil Marsh described the height of the pandemic, and highlighted how out of that adversity came strength, new strategies, and a leaner and more focused way of working.

“At the core of every surviving and successful organisation are competent, capable, skilled people,” he writes. “This makes it more important than ever to recruit, retain, and develop this expertise. Reward and recognition are crucial elements, as is the showcasing of talent, to inspire others.”

Those capable, skilled people in this case were sixty contestants from operators across coach and bus, which included Arriva, Brighton and Hove and Metrobus, East Yorkshire Buses, First Bus, Go-Ahead London, Go South Coast Morebus, Metroline, National Express and Trentbarton. They competed in categories covering three key elements: Bodywork, electrical and mechanical.

Despite uncertainty around restrictions, mask wearing, testing and tracing when the event took place in June, the event was undoubtedly a success, and continued in its duty to promote the vital role of coach and bus technicians.

The awards were introduced by new IRTE Chair and Engineering Director at Stagecoach for more than 12 years Tony Cockroft, while presenting the awards was President of the Society of Operations Engineers (SOE) Adam Fraser-Hitchen.

IRTE Skills Challenge 2021 held at S&B Automotive Academy, Bristol. Photo by Tim Gander

Staying relevant

Keynote speaker and Vice President at Women in Transport Marny Moruzzi, whose 20 years in the road transport industry saw her as a traffic control engineer for Transport for London and as Transport Strategy Manager on the HS2 project, was also present to highlight the role of engineers and the IRTE Skills Challenge, and the importance of inclusivity and attracting young talent into the industry.

This year, the mechelec category was introduced for apprentices on at least year three of training. It tested joint mechanical and electrical skills and, for IRTE, reflects the industry’s growing need for multi-skilled technicians proficient in both electrical and mechanical disciplines.

Richard Belton, Operations Director at S&B Automotive Academy, says the highlight this year was to see so many teams and so many operators commit to taking part in such challenging times. “We had a good turn out of bus operators commit to the time and costs to participate,” he says. “Companies have to put their business first, but it was great to see the dedication that they gave to the Skills Challenge and the fact that they wanted and needed to take part. It was a good uplift for everyone.”

That reveals that the sector sees the importance of the Skills Challenge in raising awareness of the industry, how skilled and modern fleet technicians are and the work they are willing and able to do within the industry. “There’s a lot of extremely qualified and experienced people that come along, all willing to give up the time to do it. There’s a lot of weight behind that – and I think that highlights the standard in the industry, and the need for that standard to remain within the industry.”

The introduction of the mechelec category was received very well, and Richard recognises that multi-skilled apprentices will be the future. “Everything is going that way. Gone are the days when a mechanic and an electrician split their roles – so many roles cross over now, and the apprentices came into it very positively and did extremely well. The winners also show that the results were extremely good.”

Richard: ‘Sponsors keep the event at the forefront of current technology’

Looking to the future

When it comes to the growth of new areas, many of the core testing areas within the Skills Challenge have remained the same over time, but Richard sees the growth of alternative fuels and drivetrains, and the changes in general electric, as having a gradual increase in focus for the electrical side of the event. “There is still the need for basic skills that every technician in the industry at this moment will need, but there’s the possibility of pushing it to a higher level in the future. At the moment we’re split between mechanical, electrical and body, but I can see the electrical area going into a lot more of the hybrid systems and electrical systems than ever before. Technology is pushing everything forward.”

Inclusivity has also played an important role in the Skills Challenge, particularly within the wider industry. “The industry has advanced to the stage now where it is fully inclusive. But we’ve got to publicise that. The industry has to get that message out. We’ve got to get that interest from other areas of the population that may not normally think it’s a career to come into. There’s still a big hill to climb on that side.”

In the meantime, the Skills Challenge will continue to advance with technology. Those basic skills are evolving, Richard says, and within the Skills Challenge there will always be ways to push limits further in the future. “Since we started, the standards we’re expecting are getting higher and higher. The links with the sponsors and the tests that they set for a lot of it as well – what those technicians are doing is always kept current to the industry. The sponsors push it forward too – all of the sponsors keep the event at the forefront of current technology and the current skills that are needed.”