At the glittering SkillBuild gala dinner and award ceremony held at The Armouries in Leeds on 16 September, no-one was more surprised than Michael Chalmers from Dover when he was called to the stage to receive the 2011 Crown Trade Apprentice Decorator of the Year award.

Gripping his Crown Trade £1,000 cheque and trophy and Gold Skillbuild Award, a stunned Michael returned to his seat with cheers and the congratulatory words of Liz Hickson, Crown Paints marketing director still ringing in his ears. He admitted, "I really had absolutely no idea that I’d done that well. I was up against the very best trainee decorators in the whole of the country and I was convinced others had done better than me."

Earlier that day 21 year old Michael, who works for JCL Decorating & Building in Folkestone, had put the finishing touches to a challenging three day ‘test piece’ at the national final of Crown Trade’s long running painting and decorating competition. The event was held at Leeds College of Building and was an integral part of SkillBuild, the UK’s biggest skills event for newcomers to the construction industry.

Michael had been competing against 12 other finalists – six other young men and six young women – aged from 18 to 28 years old. All had previously scored top marks in Crown’s regional one-day heats to secure their places in the final.

The painting and decorating final took place alongside 13 other skills events ranging from wall and floor tiling to stonemasonry and cabinetry. Working from a set of diagrams the finalists had to accurately set out and decorate a colourful three-sided work area to a design incorporating visual elements that reflected the host city. A wide range of skills were called for and the work had to be planned and executed carefully in order to meet the competition deadline. The judging panel comprised technical experts from Crown Paints and SkillBuild, assisted by guest judges from the Painting & Decorating Association and the Scottish Decorators Federation.

"I’ve been in other decorating competitions but Crown’s is special because it’s part of SkillBuild," said Michael. "It was amazing to be competing alongside the best of the best, from all those different construction trades, and then to hear I had won was just fantastic."

Michael’s P&D tutor from K College in Folkestone, Bruce Kerney, said he thoroughly deserved top marks for his performance. "This was his time…he was well prepared for the competition and he approached it in a calm and collected way. Michael is his own worst critic but I know his capabilities. I’ve seen him doing specialist work out on site, doing such a good job that that other trades have recommended him. I’m over the moon with how well he’s done."

Whilst Michael walked away with a cheque for £1000, which he plans to spend on new equipment for work, two other decorating finalists were also thrilled to hear their names called out at the ceremony and to receive cash prizes from Crown Trade.

In second place was 21 year old James Evans from Sutton in Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, an employee of decorating contractor Gary Milner. After being presented with his cheque for £500 James said, "I might take my girlfriend Natalie on holiday with the prize money. She deserves it. She’s supported me through all my skills competitions and I couldn’t have got this far without her." James’ tutor Dave Cope, head of painting and decorating at West Notts College, who saw him receive his award, commented: "We are all so proud of him at the College. He’s already earned our Apprentice of the Year award and shown outstanding commitment. We were confident he would be in the top three."

Ashley Penfold, 23, an employee of The Art of Decorating in Bromley and a veteran of the Crown Trade Apprentice Decorator competition, came third, winning £250. She declared. "I’m ecstatic. Not just because of winning the Crown Trade prize, but also because of being the only female to be presented with a SkillBuild award." Ashley’s tutor, Phil Jubb from North West Kent College was full of praise and said: "In my fourteen years of teaching, Ashley’s the best student I’ve ever taught and she’s a role model for the rest of the department."

The final scores in this year’s competition were extremely close making it very difficult for the judges to adjudicate. "We were amazed by the high standards achieved by this year’s finalists, and by their level of maturity," said Crown Paints competition manager Kevin O’Donnell. "Everyone completed every aspect of the test piece competently and within deadline which meant we had a very difficult job to do. In our eyes they are all winners. Their tutors, their employers and their families should be very proud of them."