National Skilled Trades Competition Challenges Students, Instructors and Industry to Raise the Bar | MillerWelds

National Skilled Trades Competition Challenges Students, Instructors and Industry to Raise the Bar

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Helping prepare young talent for the SkillsUSA Championships is just one step toward growing a strong, skilled workforce. Miller Electric Mfg. Co., manufacturer of welding equipment and sponsor of SkillsUSA, continues to help by partnering with SkillsUSA, donating welding equipment and communicating with those involved—especially the students.

One side of the welding competition area shows students welding inside their booths alongside Millermatic 252 all-in-one MIG welders

It may or may not take a village to raise a child, but there’s no debating that it takes a team to train SkillsUSA competitors. As part of the organization’s mission to grow participation in the skilled trades, thousands of students, parents, instructors, administrators and business representatives attend the 44th SkillsUSA’s National Leadership and Skills Conference. Here, students participate in various trade, technical and leadership contests. And with the help of industry, trade associations and labor organizations, the best of the best emerge.

With more than 5,000 students—all state contest winners—competing at the national level, the SkillsUSA Championships is a multi-million dollar event that showcases the best career and technical education students in the nation. This year’s competition, held for the 15th consecutive year in Kansas City, Mo., consists of more than 90 skilled, health occupation and leadership contests where students compete for gold, silver and bronze medals. Covering an entire city block, the week-long event also offers representatives from business, industry, colleges and post secondary institutions the opportunity to reach America’s top young talent and see their skills in action.

Helping prepare young talent for the SkillsUSA Championships is just one step toward growing a strong, skilled workforce. Miller Electric Mfg. Co., manufacturer of welding equipment and sponsor of SkillsUSA, continues to help by partnering with SkillsUSA, donating welding equipment and communicating with those involved—especially the students.

The SkillsUSA welding support team.

Instructor Influence

In particular, the welding industry desperately needs a skilled workforce. In fact, the American Welding Society (AWS) predicts that the potential shortage of welders could reach 200,000 by 2010. Many joined SkillsUSA for this reason alone. “My attachment to SkillsUSA was selfish,” says Gene Hornberger, chairman of the welding contest and participant for 34 years. “We needed welders. Every place I worked, we needed welders. The more that you can encourage people to go into welding, the more they get that.”

As chairman of the second largest contest, Hornberger wants to help people “get it.” He believes SkillsUSA can help to influence the mindset of educators and even increase their teaching standards.

“Technical education is a viable education [career],” says Hornberger. “One year the interview question the students faced on their exam was, ‘Who had the greatest impact on your life?’ Seventy-five percent of them said, ‘my instructor.’ Not their mother or their father, but their instructor. SkillsUSA pushes students and teachers harder and challenges them to improve their occupational and leadership skills.”

“This year the interview question I asked was, ‘What do you intend to do after you leave school?’ and many answered that they were going to start their own business,” says Gene Hornberger, chairman of the SkillsUSA welding competition.

But it’s not just students and teachers making the difference; industry further supports SkillsUSA so that events such as the Championships help to expose the benefits of a career in welding and bring skilled welders to the industry.

Industry Involvement

“One of the reasons that Miller partners with SkillsUSA is to address the shortage of welders that we’re facing today,” says Paul Cleveland, manager of training and mobile sales support, Miller Electric Mfg. Co. “SkillsUSA represents one of the better ways for us to do that. You get to see the contestants’ enthusiasm, energy and desire to work in this industry. Helping SkillsUSA promote that is one of the better things we can do to address the skilled welder shortage.”

To support the SkillsUSA Championships, “We have at least a dozen of our team members here to support the welding contest and new welding team fabrication contests,” says Jim Maynard, assistant training manager, Miller Electric Mfg. Co. “We work with a local distributor to bring equipment and provide dollars to offset costs of materials, etc. We supply resources for SkillsUSA programs, such as the Workforce Readiness System. And we also supply a $40,000 scholarship for the Team USA representative that competes in the World Skills competition every two years. That person has the opportunity to use $10,000 each year over four years to achieve a welding engineering degree.”

Local Relationships

While Miller helps to fund SkillsUSA programs, instructors often hold the key to a student’s future in welding. Schools benefit by getting involved in SkillsUSA, certainly, but instructors must stay active in their communities to understand the needs of area businesses.

“We try and stay right on top of what’s going on,” says Roger Day, a welding instructor at the Hilliard Technical Center in St. Joseph, Missouri. “We meet with our advisory committees twice a year. The committee is made up of [industry] people in the area. We ask them what they need and what they’re working on so we can prepare students for two to five years down the road. Then, when local industry is ready, we have students that are ready.”

“Here, students actually get to showcase their abilities in front of area manufacturers and employers but also nationally-known manufacturers and companies,” says Roger Day, instructor, Hilliard Technical Center in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Still, all the training and preparation won’t make a difference if students don’t realize that they can have a great career in welding. Instructors demonstrate different techniques for motivating their students to choose a career in welding.

Motivational Techniques

“I have 14 national winners, and each winner has a banner on my wall of fame,” says Jerry Galyen, instructor from Pinellas Technical Education Center in Clearwater, Florida. “And another motivator I have is paychecks on the wall. I make photocopies of former students’ paychecks and when they graduated and put them on the wall. Money may not be everything, but it’s a motivator.”

And so is competition. “On my wall of fame I have samples of welds,” says Matt Hayden, instructor at Cedartown High School in Cedartown, Ga., and Coosa Valley Technical College in Rome, Ga. “They stay up there until somebody runs a better weld and can knock one off the wall. They’re competing to get their name up there and pushing themselves to do better. That raises the bar.”

Unfortunately, instructors’ enthusiasm doesn’t always extend to high school guidance counselors. Vocational schools often come with a negative connotation, creating poorly equipped counselors, at least when it comes to intelligently discussing the trades.

“If a student says, I don’t want to go to college, I want to be a welder or a brick layer or a pipefitter, the guidance counselor doesn’t know what to tell them,” says Hornberger. “The first question is, ‘What College do you want to go to?’”

Hornberger adds: “SkillsUSA gives students the chance to lead and demonstrate their skills. Here, they make it clear that they want to be carpenters, welders, plumbers, and they’re proud of that".

“One of my students [Robert Pope] was the first U.S. gold medal winner at the International Olympics and he stills holds the record for the highest points scored,” says Jerry Gaylen, instructor from Pinellas Technical Education Center in Clearwater, Fla., pictured here with Matt Hayden, instructor at Cedartown High School in Cedartown, Ga., and Coosa Valley Technical College in Rome (left).

Raising the Bar Higher

SkillsUSA doesn’t just showcase the cream of the crop; the competition helps to improve the image of welding and skilled trades in general. “These students are in a clean environment here, in matching uniforms, using top-quality equipment, and people see that,” says Hayden. “They see the best of the best and the high level of skill involved. This event exposes that.”

Day agrees: “SkillsUSA is the showcase of how things are done, hands down. Nobody in the world can come here and not be thoroughly impressed when they leave.”

Instructors put in a lot of time and effort to help out with SkillsUSA and the events that the organization holds. Many didn’t have the opportunities that SkillsUSA offers students today. “I want people to understand the opportunities available here,” says Lee Caughron, Grand River Technical School, Chillicothe, Mo. “When I was going through high school, I didn’t know about SkillsUSA. It builds confidence and helps students become effective leaders. These kids are our future, and SkillsUSA offers them huge opportunities with industry and major companies.”

And perhaps more importantly, “People see that welding isn’t something that’s necessarily dirty and dangerous,” adds Caughron. “They see what the students are doing, their skill level and what it takes to actually get here.”

It takes a lot, because SkillsUSA sets the bar high. “SkillsUSA adheres to the American Welding Society standards,” says Cleveland. “We put together competitions that adhere to these standards so that when you’re involved in SkillsUSA, these standards are incorporated into your program. It validates your program because these are established skill standards set by national organizations.”

“SkillsUSA is a big part of my curriculum,” says Michael Jones, instructor at Bay Arenac Career Center, Bay City, Mich. “It’s not everything, but it fills a large portion of the school year for my students. We are a project-oriented class, but welding skills are what you really need to excel in this program. SkillsUSA fills this void. It’s a great standard to go by.”

“Whether you’re underneath the hood, in engineering, sales inspection or metallurgy, there are a lot of career pathways for welders,” says Michael Jones, instructor, Bay Arenac Career Center, Bay City, Mich.

Career Support

Parents typically learn about SkillsUSA through their children, and are often surprised at the magnitude of the events, particularly the Championships. “I knew nothing about SkillsUSA until Kyle went to Wichita Area Technical College,” says Mary Helm, mother of contestant Kyle Helm, Wichita, Kansas. “I never had any idea it was anything like this. Wow, this is just unreal.”

Unlike many parents, the Helms saw a lot of possibilities in a welding career for their son. “My son is a hands-on person, not a book person,” says Mary. “Welding is a perfect fit for him. When he finds his niche, he goes for it 100 percent. This is his niche.”

The Helms can’t say enough about how SkillsUSA has made a difference in Kyle’s motivation. “SkillsUSA has helped Kyle work for something and set goals,” says Mary. “And he’s made himself sit down and study. I didn’t have to push him.”

“He’s matured a lot through SkillsUSA,” adds father Brad Helm. “He’s met a lot of people, and that helps him to be more outgoing.”

“This has really made him work for something and set goals,” says Mary Helm, pictured here with her husband Brad Helm, parents of contestant Kyle Helm, Wichita, Kan.

The Boyers from Kawkawlin, Mich., also believe that SkillsUSA inspires their son. “Adam really liked welding, but SkillsUSA gave him an incentive to learn more and gain experience in other types of welding,” says Gerald Boyer, father of contestant Adam Boyer, a student at Bay Arenac Career Center. “And this gave him the experience to learn from other welders. He even had the opportunity to work through his senior year, but he didn’t because he felt he could gain more by staying in for SkillsUSA and the possibility of getting to this competition.”

Beyond knowledge and experience, Adam’s parents have noticed even bigger benefits. “I think, overall, this has really helped him gain a lot of confidence, and not just in welding,” says Gerald. “He seems to more confidence overall after going through all these programs.”

“He’s been at the Skills Center every day since he’s been out of school,” adds Kim Boyer, Adam’s mother. “He couldn’t wait to come here.”

“This has really made him work for something and set goals,” says Mary Helm, pictured here with her husband Brad Helm, parents of contestant Kyle Helm, Wichita, Kan.

Full Support

As far as a career in welding, Adam has his family’s full support. “Adam is looking forward to a long career in welding, and his whole family stands behind him,” says Gerald. “He says, ‘Geez, Dad, I only have to work until I’m 55.’ I wish I could say that.”

Contestant Sarah Bingham, representing the Uintah Base and Applied Technology College in Vernal, Utah, happens to be the only female competing in the welding competition, but her mom fully supports her career choice—and SkillsUSA. “It fulfills her,” says Debbie Bingham. “She loves what she does and she’s good at it. SkillsUSA has made her push herself where otherwise she may not have.”

“She has her priorities straight,” adds Sarah’s father, Scott. “She’s well-balanced and very committed to what she does.”

Her instructor, Jeff Taniguchi, takes very little credit. “She took internet courses her last year of high school so she could weld eight hours a day,” says Taniguchi. “She would go into a booth and wouldn’t come out. She’d say, ‘This is what I’m going to do, Mr. T, what do you think?’ The rest was all Sarah. She is a one in a million student.”

“I’m in a male-dominated field, but it’s great to be a good example for women,” says contestant Sarah Bingham, representing the Uintah Base and Applied Technology College in Vernal, Utah (shown oxy-fuel cutting).

Sarah Bingham demonstrates a “thumbs up” attitude when the competition is all over.

“I’m impressed with SkillsUSA,” says Scott Bingham, parent of contestant Sarah, pictured here with his wife Debbie Bingham. “Even if she finishes dead last, it’s an honor for anyone to be here. It’s an eye-opener.”

All About the Students

The bottom line is that the students drive SkillsUSA. It’s their enthusiasm and desire to succeed that ensures America will continue to build a strong, skilled workforce.

Contestant Jared Crosby from Buffalo, New York, is only 19 years old and has already completed a two-year AOS (Associate in Occupational Science) degree. He is currently working making ASME Section 9 pressure vessels in Batavia, New York. He makes good pay and receives good benefits.

So why Skills USA? “I love good healthy competition,” says Crosby. “I drive myself to be better. As long as you’re doing what you like to do, that’s all that matters."

“As long as you’re doing what you like to do, that’s all that matters,” says Jared Crosby, student, Buffalo State College, Buffalo, N.Y.

Cameron Johnson, representing Pinellas Technical Education Center in Clearwater, Fla., gave up $3,800 in weekly salary to participate the SkillsUSA Championships. By anyone’s standards, that’s a dedicated 20-year-old. Johnson welds high-pressure pipe on turbines and works for the Millwrights Local 1000. Johnson’s advice: “Do it because you like it. I never thought I could make more than $10 per hour doing it, but I did it anyway, because I liked it. That’s why I’m here, and because I practiced as much as I could.”

Johnson’s instructor, Jerry Galyen, encouraged him, too. “He made a big difference, because I didn’t know all the possibilities and things you could do with welding,” says Johnson. “He took the time, and a lot of people won’t do that. He’s willing to put in extra time to help you learn on his dime.”

Johnson has even bigger plans beyond high-pressure pipe and welding contests. “I see myself owning my own business,” says Johnson. “I want to design and build handrails and gates.”

“I see myself owning my own business,” says Cameron Johnson, student, Pinellas Technical Education Center, Clearwater, Fla.. “I want to design and build handrails and gates.”

Ambition is a common thread among contestants, but with this comes education and maturation.

“I am going for a four-year degree, a Bachelor’s of Science in Welding and Fabrication Engineering, because I feel that my welding skills and knowledge can be put to better use as an engineer,” says Westley Smith, Pennsylvania College of Technology. “I want to go into nuclear power generation, maybe as an inspector or supervisor.”

Mason Winters, working toward an engineering degree at the College of Eastern Utah, expects to be running a shop and troubleshooting welding issues. “You can make a really good living for yourself,” says Winters. “The degree will pay off.”

Both Smith and Winters will be training hard to compete at Fabtech International & AWS Welding Show in Las Vegas in the fall and possibly moving on to the US Open Weld Trials in Kansas City again next year. But, in the end, only one person will be selected to represent the United States in the World Skills Competition in Calgary held in September of 2009.

“It took me almost two years to develop any considerable skill, so my advice is to keep pushing yourself to get better,” says contestant Westley Smith, Pennsylvania College of Technology, pictured on the left with contestant Mason Winters, College of Eastern Utah, (center) and instructor Mike Tyron, College of Eastern Utah (right).

This doesn’t seem to intimidate Sarah Bingham. She understands that the longer-term benefits of her accomplishments in welding are more important than winning the competition. “I never would have thought that welding would take me as far as it has,” says Bingham. “It’s an opportunity to be an example, a role model, and it’s taken me a lot of places.”