Darlington College Apprentice Max Gardner Wins North East Heat of the Prestigious SPARKS Learner of the Year 2023 Awards

AN electrician’s chances of success came down to the wire in a prestigious competition designed to test the skills of the next generation of trades.

Darlington College student Max Gardner used up every minute of his allotted time to take the honours in the regional heat of the SPARKS Learner of the Year, a national competition designed to push the country’s talent out of their comfort zone.

The 19-year-old, of Yafforth, near Northallerton, will now take part in the final, due to be staged at Schneider Electric’s Innovation Hub, in Coventry, on April 26 and 27.

“I was worried as some of the lads finished well before me,” said Max, who works for Nigel Lightfoot Electrical Contracting Ltd, in Northallerton. “The task wasn’t too hard but I found the timing difficult and didn’t realise how little time I had left to complete the job.

“I did manage to finish just in time and the judges thought my installation was really good. I haven’t won anything before so this was great and I am really looking forward to the final.

“I felt really proud to have been selected to represent Darlington College and it shows I must be doing something right.”

Apprentice Max Gardner busy at work during SPARKS competition.The SPARKS Learner of the Year competition is run in conjunction with a plumbing skills competition called HIP Learner of the Year. Both are operated by SNG, the publishing house for students and apprentices. The North East heat attracted competitors from across the North East and Yorkshire and was hosted by Darlington College.

Competitors had six hours to complete their plumbing tasks, and five to complete the electrical test, which were set and judged by industry experts.

The SPARKS Learner of the Year heat saw them tackle a variety of jobs ranging from lighting circuits, AICO alarms and fuse boxes, with support from Electric Center and IDEAL Industries.

Plumbers had to work with copper and plastic piping and fittings, as well as top of the range brands such as Wilo pumps, Worcester Bosch boilers, Stelrad radiators and Triton showers, with support from the largest wholesaler in the UK, Wolseley Plumb & Parts.

They were assessed on the quality of their workmanship and also the degree of waste produced completing the tasks.

Head judge of the SPARKS Learner of the Year competition Geoff Brittain, of NAPIT, said: “The challenges were so difficult that some contestants were not expected to finish in time. For those who did, it was a fantastic achievement and I was very impressed by the standards of their work. It is very prestigious to win and they all learn a lot.”

Plumbing judge Glenn Scholfield, of Aalberts IPS, added: “The aim is to challenge the students and include the latest technology.

“It’s more than a competition. They will leave feeling they have learnt something which will be great for their confidence and self-esteem. They are buzzing when they manage to finish and they can see the standards of their work completed under the pressure of competition.”

SNG managing editor Celia Matthews founded the business after being given a ‘ridiculous quote’ for a leaky tap.

“I wanted to learn how to fix things so contacted my local college and signed up for evening classes for levels 2 and 3 in plumbing and heating,” she recalled. “While I was doing the course I noticed a real gap between apprentices and the industry and a lack of support for students as they tried to secure work.

“So I put together a booklet and this was the birth of the publishing house. I just wanted to support and help young people wanting to work in the industry.

“The competitions push them outside their comfort zones. Competitors are nervous at the beginning but are prepared to give it a good go. It instils confidence and pride in their work and by the end they are buzzing.”

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