IN the last month 300 fewer people have applied for Jobseekers’ Allowance in Oxfordshire, and more young people are turning to construction apprenticeships. ALEX WYNICK met trainee builders at the South East regional final of the SkillBuild competition

THE air is thick with dust as dozens of bricklayers quickly scoop wet cement on to low walls, but this is no ordinary building site.

It is the southern regional final of the SkillBuild competition, which sees hundreds of young construction apprentices from around the county competing for the top spot.

The City of Oxford College campus in Blackbird Leys was full on Thursday with nearly 100 competitors.

For the second year in a row the Cuddesdon Way campus held heats in bricklaying, joinery, plastering, carpentry, tiling, cabinet making, dry walling, painting, roofing and stonemasonry.

The college’s learning manager James Posselwhite said: “This is a celebration of vocational skills for the Southern region.

“It’s about finding the best in our region, who can then go on and showcase their work to the nation at the national finals in November.”

The Oxford college had seven contestants — three in bricklaying, two in joinery and two in carpentry, working alongside competitors from Abingdon and Witney College, Reading College and Swindon College.

Once named, the local winners will go on to a national final at Birmingham’s NEC later in the summer.

Mr Posselwhite said: “It’s great to see so many young people showing off their skills in this arena.

“When we get new juniors each year we look for anyone with potential and then give them extra training alongside their studies in preparation.

“We ramp that up as we get closer to the time.”

Contestants have an area marked out and get six hours to complete a project.

Everyone is shown the plans at the same time on the day of the event, so no one can prepare in advance.

Mr Posselwhite said: “What they’re told to do is slightly ridiculous, you wouldn’t necessarily see this level of detail in the industry.

“They are learning lots of different skills and elements. It is made as extreme and awkward to build as possible.”

A panel of SkillBuild judges score each project on how neat, strong and well-constructed the results are.

Event organiser Les Inkpen said: “If you do well at SkillBuild you may get a place on the WorldSkills UK team go to compete at the 2015 WorldSkills competition in Brazil.”


STUART Bevan was one of the senior bricklayers in the contest, and is an apprentice with Blenheim Brickwork Ltd, based in Lechlade, Gloucestershire.

He said: “Hopefully it went OK. It was a bit daunting looking around the room and seeing the things that everybody else had done. It’s really different when its under pressure and with a time limit. There are a lot of things to check.”

The 34-year-old, from Waterstock, was one of the oldest entrants in the contest. He said: “I did several construction jobs before this course. I thought, ‘I’m not getting anywhere with this’.

“I wanted to get a trade. When I was working as a general labourer I was the lowest of the low in the ranks.

“You have to get to have a trade or you are running around for everybody else.

“Nobody takes notice if you don’t have a trade — you don’t a have a say.”

Mr Bevan is working to support his wife Arabella and two daughters — Alessia, five and three-year-old Zara.

For the last two years he has spent two weeks at college and then six weeks working on-site as an apprentice.

He said: “My course is pretty much completed, bar the final exam in June.

“It’s brilliant I have knuckled down and done it. The teachers are good fun, it’s a good atmosphere and environment.”


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CARPENTRY apprentice Elliott James, above, came third in his round of the competition.

The 19-year-old said: “It had to be done pretty quick for how difficult the work was — it was challenging.

“We had to make a corner of a roof with four different types of rafters and beams.

“I’m satisfied with what I did, but it could always be better.”

Mr James, from Headington, is in his third and final year of the course.

He said: “I spend one day a week at college and the rest I’m an apprentice at Symons Construction. When I leave I’ll be a fully qualified carpenter.

“I want to progress and hopefully my skills will become more advanced with experience.”

He said: “Carpentry is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was young, because when I was younger we had a family friend who would come round and fix everything.

“I would help him and my interest just grew from there.”


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BLACKBIRD Leys resident Darren Jeffers, above, is a senior bricklayer at the college, and works as an apprentice for Valley Building and Construction Services.

He said: “I didn’t go to college the first time, I did plastering when I left school. Labouring is work but I wanted to have more money, do better in life, progress and expand my skills.

“I want to progress in life so me and my partner can start a family and I can support them better than anybody else.”

The 24-year-old said of the SkillBuild contest: “It’s really hard. It’s a good competition because it really tests your skills. I did manage to finish the job on time.”


Banbury Cake:

TWENTY-year-old Nemat Gul Mohammed, above, is a junior bricklayer at the college, and has already overcome barriers to get there.

In 2009 he travelled to the UK from Afghanistan as an asylum seeker, and was given the right to stay in the country. He said: “Back home I worked with construction, so I chose the bricklaying course.

“But my English wasn’t good enough for the course and I had to do another course for my English before I could do this one.”

Now one year into his course, he is waiting to find out if he’s been hired as an apprentice.

He said: “I’m not nervous about it, I’m pretty confident with it.

“My tutor encourages me a lot and is very happy with my work.

“It’s nice to hear that he thinks I am skilled and better than others.”

He added: “I hope that bricklaying will be a good future for me.

“I really want to do this. I love to work with bricks and to make walls.”

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