Smooth operators: Emirati teens plaster in battle of best drywall
A group of Emirati teenagers have been on a mission to hone their skills ahead of a national contest, where they hope to stand out as stellar plaster and drywall specialists capable of making prefabricated walls entirely by hand.
A small group of Emirati teens clad in blue overalls are gathered inside a large, almost empty room. Their hands – and the floors and walls – are smeared with white plaster. Off to one side is a mountain of broken-down drywall and metal.
The group has been immersed in a workshop ahead of the EmiratesSkills competition, which began on Tuesday and wraps up tomorrow at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.
Each has been engaged in an unlikely challenge: to become country’s foremost plaster and drywall specialist.
“That massive pile of rubbish over there,” says Gary Condon, their chief instructor. “It hasn’t been taken in about two or three weeks. You can see they’ve been doing quite a lot of work.”
Their work involves making and finishing interior walls entirely by hand, using an assortment of tools. It’s a laborious process of practice, trial and error.
“Every week, we start one and as soon as they finish it, over two days, we demolish it and two days later, we start it again,” Mr Condon says.
The workshop is cordoned off into individual spaces with red tape. Tools include a screw gun, snips, a hawk and trowel, plastering knives, a Stanley knife, chalk line, cordless drill, pencils, markers, a level and a set square.
Rashid Mohammed, 19, says he first heard about the competition through school.
“I was interested when I heard about plastering because it’s a new profession – a new practice. Nobody does it here in the UAE and there isn’t anywhere you can learn it.”
Hamed Al Mazimi, 16, says he has learned a great deal. “I wanted to try something new, learn a new skill and face a fresh challenge.”
Mr Condon, who won a gold medal representing Ireland in London at 2011’s WorldSkills competition, an annual event that is coming to Abu Dhabi in 2017, has spent the last 10 weeks training the Emirati students.
The project began at last year’s EmiratesSkills, when the drywall company Gyproc, for which Mr Condon is lead systems demonstrator, displayed the craft.
Over the next two days at Adnec, each student will have just 14 hours to build a partition from scratch, measuring 1.2 metres by 1.2 metres, with a window, ceiling and finished exterior wall.
On Tuesday morning, they marked out their floor space and measurements and started building. Today, they’ll tackle the ceiling, plaster and clean up, says Condon, with the students “making sure everything is as nice and neat as possible”.
Judges will then measure their work, giving only a 2-millimetre leeway in each direction on the original specifications. “That’s the same as on the world platform level of judging,” says Mr Condon. The students will work in spaces that are 5 square metres. Inside, they have all they need – tools, workbench, gypsum boards and a platform on which to work.
Points are awarded cumulatively. Failure to meet criteria results in a failure to score points. They must not stray from their respective spaces without permission or risk automatic disqualification.
Any unsafe behaviour, such as tossing tools or failing to wear the appropriate safety gear, will be penalised. Four judges will assess the projects based on measurements and appearance, even taking into account details such as the depth of the screws into the gypsum boards.
“I built this,” says Mr Condon, pointing to an immaculate project in the corner of the workshop. “Two weeks ago, the guys were getting good, so I said ‘Right lads, on Sunday I’m going to go against you’.
“They started making mistakes because they weren’t used to competitions. They were all shouting at me: ‘Teacher, slow down, slow down.’”
His assistant instructor and Gyproc colleague, Zanoon Jamil, was on hand to help translate some words of wisdom, telling the students to relax and focus only within their own workspaces.
“The person who is doing it the fastest may get points for completion but the quality may not be good,” says Mr Condon, 26.
He had far more experience than his students when he won the Irish national competition in 2010.
“When I was doing my competition I was already working in the construction industry, whereas here not many Emiratis are involved in construction work.”
Mr Condon began working in carpentry when he was 17, before moving into plastering a year later. In the 2010 competition, he came in joint first place. The next year, he scored the most points, but the Irish competition only allows people to win once.
He went on a two-week competitive course, where he beat the “young lads” who came first and second in 2011 and spent five months training, ahead of winning WorldSkills 2011, repeatedly building and tearing down projects.
He trained for five months ahead of winning WorldSkills 2011, repeatedly building and tearing down projects.
“When I went to London, I built the best one I ever built. I just put in my ear blockers and I was just in the zone.”
Apart from being scouted out by his employer Gyproc, which is owned by the French multinational company Saint-Gobain that sponsored his WorldSkills efforts, Mr Condon says the experience changed his life.
“I’m also on the WorldSkills Champions Trust Committee now, representing the Middle East, Asia and Ireland.”
As one of nine trust members, he travels the world, training in new skills such as public speaking, and volunteering to “spread the word”.
“For any of these guys, it could change their lives. I come from a little village in Ireland, to now living in one of the richest cities in the world and working with one of the biggest companies in the world.”
Khalifa Al Hammadi, 17, admits he was nervous heading into the competition, although he has not found the work too difficult. Ahmed Al Nuami, 19, is confident.
“I think they’re excited, but I know they’re nervous as well,” says Mr Condon.
They are also making history. “Whoever is the gold medal winner would be the first ever national champion in plaster and drywall.”
They could possibly go on to represent their country at WorldSkills next year when Abu Dhabi plays host, depending on who next year’s EmiratesSkills winners are.
“When I found out I was winning any medal, I burst into tears,” says Mr Condon. “When I went up to the stage and found out it was gold, I could barely contain my excitement. That feeling is unbelievable and I want these guys to get that feeling as well.”
Aidan Jones, executive director for World Skills Abu Dhabi in October next year, says the event will be the largest ever held at Adnec.
“We will have 1,200 competitors from 75 countries competing in 50 skills,” Mr Jones says.
The event will also show other new skills to the public and allow them to take part. Mr Jones, who ran the London 2011 event, says the competition will promote vocational and technical education and training and the breadth of other skills.
It fits perfectly, he elaborates, with the UAE’s vision to further diversify its economy away from oil and gas.
“Young people need to choose the paths that are right for them. Rather than just, for example, a university degree, there are many ways and paths to take in one’s career to be a successful contributor to society and the economy.”
Across the world, people have different perceptions of vocational careers, says Mr Jones.
“In Switzerland, for example, you would naturally treat an electrician with a higher degree of respect than you would in some other countries and that has to do with a mindset.
“Once we get into the world of trying to change mindsets and attitudes, that’s a much tougher job to do.”
Updated: May 11, 2016 04:00 AM