Thomas Neave is one of 15 young Australians competing against the best in the world at the 45th WorldSkills International Championship.

Every two years, the best trainees and apprentices from 60 countries gather to compete against each other at the WorldSkills International Championships. This year, Australia’s team of 15 young Skillaroos includes Thomas Neave, a 22-year-old joiner from Geelong, who has recently completed his apprenticeship.

It’s been a year-long journey for Neave, who trained at The Gordon TAFE. “It started with David Rush. He’s a cabinet maker who teaches at The Gordon and a bit of a mentor. He got me into the WorldSkills program when I was an apprentice. It started off as a regional competition and I did well in that.”

‘Well’ in this case meant winning the Joinery division, which qualified Neave for the 2018 WorldSkills Australia National Championships. As Neave casually puts it, “I headed up to Sydney for the national comp and won that as well, so I was selected to be on the Australian team for the 2019 Global Skills Challenge. I’ve been training for the last year or so.”

Training mostly consists of practicing the skills each Skillaroo has been selected for. In Neave’s case this has meant building tables, windows, door frames, a chair and more under the watchful eye of his training manager, Tom Ryan from Ballarat’s Ludbrook’s Joinery. Ryan is an industry expert and was himself a successful WorldSkills competitor in 2008. “He judged the competition in Sydney and now he’s my expert advisor,” says Neave.

The training items are chosen with guidance from WorldSkills International. While the actual projects to be constructed during competitions are kept secret, enough information is shared to allow competitors to practice on similar items, learning how to balance precision and speed. As Neave says, “It’s pretty fancy stuff and shows off what we can do.”

In April this year, Neave competed in the Global Skills Challenge in Melbourne. There, 500 competitors from 16 countries brought their best to the four-day event, providing an international challenge that was the final step in selection for the Australian International Championship team. Despite feeling he had made a few mistakes, Neave won Bronze, qualifying for the Skillaroos. And as if that wasn’t enough, he received his trade papers the same week.

Out of the ordinary

The WorldSkills program is more than just a competition. Past winners, like Ryan, are invited to become alumni and train and support young competitors, all of whom are aged 19-22. These Skillaroos are mentored by experts and, just as important, create networks that will help them navigate their early careers with more ease.

For Neave, it’s another validation that his career choice was a good one. As he says, ”My next-door neighbour was a joiner and when he did some work at our home, I became interested in it from a really young age. I’ve found it a rewarding path.”

While he’s currently enjoying working at Spence Construction (the company supports his competing) ultimately, Neave wants to make specialty furniture. “I really like working with Australian hardwoods,” he says. “Vic ash, stringybark, Tassie oak, stuff like that.”

In addition to timber-based skills such as joinery, carpentry and cabinetmaking, other building trades form part of the WorldSkills championship, including bricklaying, electrical installation and plumbing, alongside events showcasing mechanics, bread makers, coders, designers and more.

This year’s championship will be held in Kazan, Russia, where Neave was headed two days after we spoke. “I haven’t been to Russia before,” he says, “I’m looking forward to it, something different! I think I’ll have a little bit of time to myself, so I’m going to head out and see some things, it will be really cool. I’ve met the rest of the team, a lot of them are around my age, so it will be good to experience all this together.”

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