- The conference, the largest workforce development event for students in public career and technical education programs in the United States, drew more than 6,400 students and more than 18,000 people in all to Louisville.
- More than 100 students from Kentucky qualified for the national competitions, and about 1,000 compete in the state competition each year.
By Mike Marsee
There’s so much more to SkillsUSA than competition.
There were 103 contests around the Kentucky Exposition Center and other venues at the recent SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville. More than 6,400 students competed for scholarships, tools of the trade and other prizes provided by industry sponsors at the largest workforce development event for students in public career and technical education programs in the United States – and every one of them was a winner.
Sean Conley, a chapter adviser at Gateway Academy to Innovation and Technology (Christian County), said the experience students gain from competing in their area of expertise can be every bit as valuable as a high finish at state or national competitions.
“The opportunity that SkillsUSA offers all the scholars is amazing. The scholarships and prizes are cool, but the professional development they’re getting out of it and the leadership skills are tremendous,” said Conley, whose school sent six students to the national SkillsUSA championships. “Where else in the world other than doing an internship can you get this? This is giving them on-the-job training while they’re at school, and that in and of itself is basically a scholarship.”
Michelle Rauch, the SkillsUSA chapter adviser at Eastside Technical Center (Fayette County) – which sent eight students to the national conference – said there are other benefits as well.
“I honestly think one of the best benefits of it is the social skills,” Rauch said. “These kids already are quite talented in their individual skill areas. The social skills they get from this are tremendous. I love seeing them put their phones down and engage with other kids.”
More than 18,000 people attended the national conference in Louisville, where it has been held since 2015. The Derby City will host the competition once more in 2020 before it moves to Atlanta the following year. There were 116 students from Kentucky entered in the national SkillsUSA Championships – most were high school students, but there also are divisions for middle school and postsecondary students. About 1,000 students competed in the state championships in April.
Still, SkillsUSA might be one of the best-kept secrets in career and technical education. Rauch said she had never heard of the organization before she switched careers to teaching eight years ago.
“I’m really surprised at how many people don’t know what it is,” she said.
Conley, who began teaching three years ago and was named the state adviser of the year this spring, said he was impressed from the first time he attended a competition.
“After my first year of seeing what SkillsUSA does for scholars, it blew my mind,” he said. “I wish I had that opportunity when I was a kid.”
Rauch assisted the adviser for her school’s chapter before becoming the adviser three years ago.
“I was really intrigued when I first started teaching to learn about it,” she said. “I thought it was a wonderful opportunity for students to get involved and to put their learning in the classroom into action outside the classroom.”
Rauch said there are benefits for advisers as well as for the students.
“I get just as much out of it as the teacher/adviser as the kids do,” she said. “They see you not just as a teacher, but as a mentor.”
Conley said he has as much fun watching his students at state and national conferences as they do competing.
“I see how much they’ve grown,” he said. “They don’t see it, but I see how much they’ve grown and molded into leaders. They’re technically proficient at what they’re doing, and it’s just amazing for me to see it.
“Especially when they get to that state level, they start seeing why they do what they do. They come back with that drive every year. I love just seeing kids get that drive and really push hard to do it on their own. They’re really trying to accomplish their goals with SkillsUSA, and they bring other scholars in with them.”
Rauch said the idea of starting a chapter might seem daunting to teachers who are considering it, but she said starting small might be the way to go.
“I think it can be intimidating to start a chapter, especially with all of the meetings and extra things you can do,” she said. “You don’t have to go all out and do the maximum, just have meetings during the school day to talk about competitions and get the kids interested in competing,” she said. “The kids are going to get what they need out of it.”