WorldSkills 2022: Lancashire engineering whiz set for Shanghai showdown at global ‘skills Olympics’
For Abigail Stansfield, her journey to Shanghai started in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham back in 2017.
It was there that she was inspired, enraptured by WorldSkills UK Live, the mecca of engineering talent where competitors face off in what has been dubbed the ‘skills Olympics’. Five years on, she’s eyeing the podium herself.
Born and raised in Chipping in the Ribble Valley, Abigail was captivated from an early age by a fascination with how things were put together.
“I suppose I’ve always been interested in finding out how everything works,” she says. “Since the age of about 11 or 12, I’ve been involved in stock car racing, so I’ve always been taught that, if I don’t help, then the car won’t be sorted. As a result, I’ve always been very hands-on and involved in that respect.
“That’s where that interest in how things come together comes from, I think,” she adds. “I knew I loved engineering, but I never quite knew which area of engineering I wanted to do. That’s why I applied to do my A Levels, but I also applied for the apprenticeship at BAE Systems.”
Having impressed at BAE, Abigail was offered a coveted apprenticeship with the company in 2016 and jumped at the chance, becoming an advanced engineering apprentice. Thanks to her talent and hard work, she was quickly identified as one of the company’s most promising young engineers and soon found herself working as a toolmaker at BAE Samlesbury.
“I knew what I wanted to do and because, with an apprenticeship, you study the same skills whilst also getting paid, that option offered me all the pros I wanted,” says Abigail, now 22. “Because I knew I wanted to do engineering, I didn’t want to do A Levels and everything like that - I wanted to get straight into it.
“That’s where the apprenticeship was so good for me: it allowed me to try out various different areas such as electrical, CAD (computer-aided design) work, fitting, and machining,” she adds, now specialising in machine tooling, which involves drawing and modelling bespoke parts using software and programming them ready to be milled.
“That hands-on experience was invaluable at that age,” Abigail says. “I went straight from high school to my apprenticeship and I don’t know what to say: it gave me an awful lot of pride to be working with a global company like BAE. I didn't think I’d be up to that standard and be able to work for them at that age, but it goes to show that all the hard work pays off.
“I’ve noticed a real development in my skills during the apprenticeship, too,” she continues. “I was a child when I started but I’ve really grown and, skillswise - because I’ve tried out a lot of different areas - I’ve gotten really good experience of improving in a few different sectors before then specialising in my specific area and in my specific skill.
“I chose toolmaking because it combined fitting and the C&C work (computer numerical control - a metal fabrication method where written code controls the machinery) and because the work is so different with each job,” she explains. “That keeps everything interesting and no two days are the same when you come into work, which I really love.”
Asked to help out on one of BAE Systems’ stalls at WorldSkills UK Live in Birmingham back in 2017, Abigail was enthralled by the prospect of competing at such a historic and prestigious event. The chance to test herself again the best of the best was simply too enticing.
An organisation which identifies and promotes the most elite apprentices and young people in the world, WorldSkills held its inaugural competition in 1946. The initiative was born amidst the ruins of the Second World War to promote greater engineering innovation after the conflict had devastated the economies of Europe and created a huge skills shortage that threatened economic depression.
It has since exploded in popularity.
“I went down to Birmingham to push apprenticeships and, as I was there, I thought that I’d actually like to compete myself,” says Abigail. “Then, when I got my first taste of competition, it made me want more which encouraged me to train so much more and push myself harder to try and reach that goal. I’ve been training every week to try and get to a higher standard.”
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Competing in the CNC (computer numerical control) Milling competition, which sees competitors use computerised controls and rotating multi-point cutting tools to effectively carve a custom-designed part or product, Abigail took part in the 2018 WorldSkills UK competition, earning a Highly Commended Status.
She returned the following year and claimed bronze, becoming one of three people in the country to earn a place on Squad UK for the EuroSkills 2020 competition in Graz, Austria - an event which was due to see 30 European countries compete in over 35 different skill areas before the competition sadly had to be cancelled due to the Covid pandemic.
“I was originally picked in the August of 2019 for the 2020 Euroskills the following September and I was so excited but, because of Covid, we couldn’t send a team,” says Abigail. “That was heartbreaking: to train to that standard and not be able to go… but I just had to try and see the positives and train even harder with Shanghai in mind.”
Which brings us to China. WorldSkills 2022 will see engineering’s best and brightest gather in Shanghai in October to compete in 63 skill competitions across manufacturing, engineering, creative arts, transportation, communication, and logistics. And one of those competitors will be Abigail, who has used the last two years to hone her skills.
“I had to push past it and use it as positive motivation and being selected for Shanghai was great,” she says. “Hopefully, I can achieve some good things out there and the time away has made me more determined. I’m definitely more motivated to try and prove that I’m actually alright at competition standards.
“For the competition, I’ll get a drawing where I have to model it on the computer and programme everything before taking it to the machine and, hopefully accurately, reach all the tolerances,” she adds. “At the moment in time, I’m obviously feeling a little nervous, but all my training will hopefully pay off.”
Having proved she is of world-class standard in her field, Abigail is also hoping to break UK records at the event: a podium finish will see Abigail become the first person ever from the UK to come awarded a medal in the CNC Milling category.
“I think the highest the UK has ever finished in my skill is 10th so my aim is to hopefully push that record higher,” she says. “I recently did the practice piece for the previous EuroSkills and, had I been out there competing in that year, I’d have got bronze.
“Hopefully, given I’ve done a lot more training since then, I can come home with something.”