It Takes a Certain Kind of Skill

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It Takes a Certain Kind of Skill

The COEX convention center in Samsung-dong, southern Seoul, is often the site of numerous exhibitions, trade shows and large international conferences; but this month it's been holding a more eclectic show, a collection of auto repair shops, woodworking shops, dressmakers and hair stylists.

Seven hundred representatives from 35 countries around the world are competing in the 36th World Skills Competition, an olympics for skilled tradesmen that originated in Spain in 1950 to motivate young people to pursue vocational careers. Competitors pit their well-honed skills in 39 diverse trades, including traditional trades such as instrument-making, welding and cabinetmaking, as well as the more modern computer support and restaurant service.

The four-day competition held in the middle of the exhibition is a grueling one in which the participants are given several specific assignments to complete on a deadline. Not only are the final products judged by an international panel of experts, even the work process is watched with scrutiny. Over at the restaurant-service competition area, napkins folded ingeniously into fancy shapes such as a swan and a jacket are on display along with small floral arrangements on the table for each participating country. Competitors, essentially waiters and waitresses, also twirl their wine glasses, sniff and taste the wine as they attempt to identify the various wines set on the long table.

The air in the workshops is tense, and a near silence falls all over the huge exhibition halls. Over at the carpentry section, it is completely quiet but for the occasional noises of sawing and hammering. At the lady's dressmaking section, contestants are at various stages of their work. Some have already begun sewing, while others are cutting out patterns. Hairdressers work at a fast pace, setting the mannequin's head with hot rollers, or straightening the curly hairdo with a dryer. Everywhere one looks, the faces are focused and eyes alert as all competitors appear completely professional as they set about their tasks.

Jang Jae-ho, 19, Korea's competitor in the floristry category, a trade that has become an official competing category for the first time at this year's World Skills Competition, is one of the many dedicated tradesmen who has devoted countless hours and even years to training for the competition which gives them the rare opportunity to engage their skills against the very best from around the world.

Mr. Jang spent the past three years training for the competition. In fact, his training has been so intense that he is currently on a leave of absence from Keimyung University, Taegu, where he is a sophomore majoring in American Studies.

As he works on his assignment early in the competition, spectators likely notice the intense concentration of the young man with close-cropped hair, black T-shirt, baggy black pants and yellow sneakers. To avoid distractions, Mr. Jang works with his back to the spectators.

Among the few people observing Mr. Jang bend and cut wires, spray glue and arrange flowers is Lee Myung-bu, Mr. Jang's mother. In a hushed voice, so as not to distract the concentration of his son, Ms. Lee says, "He shaved his head five months ago so that he could devote all his time to preparing for this."

It is unusual to find men, especially young men, in the floral arrangement business in Korea, where working with flowers is dismissed as something too trivial and sissified for a man to engage in. For Mr. Jang, it started as an unusual hobby. After all, he had always been around flowers: His mother is a florist as is his 25-year-old sister Yoon-sun, herself a winner of several national floristry competitions. When flower arrangement became more than a mere hobby for Mr. Jang, his mother began formal instructions for him. What started out as a pastime became something much more intense as the young man began entering national competitions. Maybe the talent ran in the family but there is no denying that Mr. Jang worked hard to refine it. His mother soon ran out of things to teach him and hired a coach who has been training Mr. Jang in flower arrangement.

After a three-hour-long cut-flower competition session in the morning followed by a lunch break, Mr. Jang begins working on the assigned theme "Red Roses are Bringing Love to the Whole World," using roses and ferns. Bending meters of wire into a heart shape and then covering it with green fern, Mr. Jang works at a fast pace, glancing once in a while at the yellow stopwatch that hung low from his neck. The heart is set on a high pedestal fashioned out of long, white wooden sticks and finally, petals of red roses pierce through thin reeds that hang out from the top of the pedestal. Mr. Jang completes his work, taller than he is, just in time as a whistle goes off, signaling all competitors to stop work immediately.

Even after the work is hauled by two volunteers to a judging area, Mr. Jang keeps busy, tidying up his worktable, putting away leftover flowers and sweeping the floor, even after his competitors have left, so that he can start with a clean workspace the next day. Behind the area where the works are presented, judges convene. Carefully observing each work, each one very different and distinct, Mr. Jang says tersely with a faint smile, "I am satisfied. I did my very best."

by Kim Hoo-ran

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