By Mike Marsee
Standing in a vast exhibition hall at the Kentucky Exposition Center, Nathan Hager sees what he missed more than a decade ago.
As a student at Meade County High School, Hager never realized the value of SkillsUSA and its competitions during his days as a student in the program. Now a carpentry instructor at Meade County Area Technology Center, he has a better grasp on what the program can do for students as he helps them prepare for their competitions.
“I went through the program and I didn’t take it seriously. Looking back now, I wish I would’ve taken it more seriously. So I have a passion for pushing the kids, and it’s worked out well,” Hager said.
Hager was one of more than 16,000 people who attended the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville earlier this summer. The event includes the SkillsUSA Championships, the national competition for public high school and college/postsecondary students enrolled in career and technical education programs.
A total of 109 Kentucky high school students joined students from every state and three U.S. territories in more than 100 hands-on skill and leadership competitions.
“It’s rewarding, and it’s stressful,” Hager said of the competition, which he attended for the second year. “You want to do it for them, but you can’t. But to see them figure it out themselves and to know that you had a hand in giving them the correct advice and the know-how, it’s very rewarding to see these kids succeed.”
Career and technical education was the centerpiece of the annual conference, which is billed as the world’s largest showcase of skilled trades.
“There is nothing else like it in the world,” said Larry Johnson, the Kentucky SkillsUSA state director with the Kentucky Department of Education’s Office of Career and Technical Education. “There is 1.5 million square feet of skill and leadership competitions where students are going head-to-head against the best in their skill area. It’s one of those things you have to see to understand the magnitude of the event.”
The conference is two years into a six-year run in Louisville, where it occupied every wing of the state fairgrounds. It offers competitions in skills such as electrical construction wiring, plumbing, automotive technologies, carpentry, information technology services and robotics. It also gives students the chance to compete in less obvious areas – such as restaurant service, commercial baking, cosmetology and digital cinema production – and in leadership development.
“There really is something that appeals to everyone,” said Dean Monarch, a computerized manufacturing and machining instructor at Breckinridge County Area Technology Center. “It’s really interesting to see everything that Skills encompasses. That’s what’s really amazing, to walk in this building and see all of that under one roof.”
Monarch has spent 16 years as the SkillsUSA adviser at Breckinridge County ATC and Breckinridge County High School. In that time, he has built a SkillsUSA chapter that last year was the largest in the state, with about 280 members.
That growth is no accident. Monarch said he believes so strongly in the value of the program that he wants to make it accessible to as many students as possible.
“A couple of years ago, we made a commitment that every student who came into our building who was eligible to be a Skills member, we were going to do everything we could to make that happen,” he said. “The students raised the money as a group to pay the 100 percent chapter rate, so even if a student doesn’t do fundraising they can still reap the benefits.”
The Meade County program Hager is affiliated with is Kentucky’s second-largest, with slightly more than 200 students. Hager said it is likely to grow once a $14.2 million expansion of Meade County ATC is completed in August 2017.
If there is value in participating in SkillsUSA and in taking part in its regional and state competitions, it is even more valuable to be a part of the national conference. The annual gathering offers free seminars through its SkillsUSA University, as well as speakers and a trade show.
“Just the fact that they were able to compete and to win at the state level is amazing, and then to come to a national level and be competitive is that much more exciting,” Monarch said. “But the ability to see that there’s things outside of their little community, to meet people from different parts of the country, I think that’s a big part of it. It really opens their eyes to opportunities.”
Students have to win at the state level to qualify for the national competition. Hager said earning a spot at nationals is a reward in itself.
“Just getting here, putting that on a resume, just sets them apart from the other guy that’s trying to get a job. And I think a lot of these students are starting to realize that, especially now that they’re at this point,” he said.
Monarch cited a student whom he said was better prepared for life after high school because of his involvement in SkillsUSA.
“He was never focused on much of anything until he got involved with the program. He really blossomed and he was able to win at the state level. It’s opened an opportunity for him that he would have never had, and it’s really helped him grow,” Monarch said.
Hager said he has seen the same things.
“I see a big boost in confidence, especially from day one to now. Some of them were scared to tell me their name when they walked in the classroom, and now they want to show you what they can do,” he said. “To see them actually make that turn and start to look toward their future, and know that they can make a rewarding career working with my hands and provide for them or their family, it’s very rewarding.
“Now that I’ve got a few years under my belt, I enjoy seeing some students that are making it in the field that I had a hand in helping. It puts a smile on my face.”
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