Imagine having the opportunity to learn and then demonstrate your welding capabilities or another hands-on technical skill while still in high school, getting a chance to win awards and a head start on a future career. That’s exactly what the SkillsUSA program offers high school students across Wisconsin.
Jessie Lloyd, a welding instructor for Fox Valley Technical College, has seen multiple students take the skills they’ve learned in the SkillsUSA club she advises at Wautoma High School and win awards, helping them build a strong foundation for a career.
“The self-confidence students develop is often projected throughout their school work. Students who compete in SkillsUSA often raise or maintain their academic performance across the board,” she says. “As they leave our program, they have the tools necessary to navigate continuing education or pursue a trade. SkillsUSA is a great resume builder and often aids these students in getting their first job in the industry.”
The Wisconsin SkillsUSA program started in the 1973-74 school year as a way to honor students for their technical skills, expose them to technical and skilled jobs, and help them start their careers, says Brent Kindred, executive director for SkillsUSA Wisconsin. The program is part of the regular school day.
“Our mission is to get more young people in the skilled and trade careers, but in the process of doing that, they learn not only those technical skills, but also leadership and soft skills,” he says. “Employees want people who show up on time, communicate with others, work hard — these are all areas covered in the program. If students can marry their technical, personal and workplace skills together, that’s a recipe for success.”
SkillsUSA programs are offered at the middle school, high school and technical college levels.
“We are a skills gap solution and can help take Wisconsin’s workforce where it needs to be,” Kindred says.
The annual highlight for SkillsUSA students is a statewide competition, held each spring. This year, Kindred says 1,800 high school and college students signed up to compete. Based on their performance at the state event, students can advance to national competition.
“Our numbers are growing; we’re closing in on 4,000 members statewide,” he says. “We added 16 new chapters this school year.”
The annual competition is exciting in that students prepare year-round for it, Lloyd says. Anastasia Dillenberg, a member of the Wautoma team, won first place last year in the state welding sculpture category, and Lloyd estimates she spent upward of 40 hours working on her project at school before taking it to the state competition.
“That’s not all they are judged on. They are also judged on a portfolio, detailing their project’s construction process,” she says. “For the welding competitors, they are given welding prints, and they are challenged with making their project at the competition. They also take a written welding knowledge test and sometimes complete a mock interview for a welding job.”
Depending on its size and adviser availability, a school may have one or more SkillsUSA teams. At Freedom High School, Jay Abitz leads the collision repair team, but students also work on welding and prepared speech competitions with other advisers.
Since the school started its program in 1978, it has produced 26 state champions in collision repair — a national and state record, Abitz says.
Participating in SkillsUSA “is validation of their skills and a chance to compete against others to find out how they stack up. Success in SkillsUSA has propelled many students into careers in the automotive industry over the years,” he says. “Students also earn great prizes from industry supporters, which they can use in the field. Students have won scholarships in excess of $30,000 to schools such as UTI (Universal Technical Institute) and MATC (Milwaukee Area Technical College).”
Once all the competitions are over, students can use the skills they’ve learned, whether in a tech school classroom, an apprenticeship or further educational opportunities, Lloyd says. She adds that five of her six current SkillsUSA welding students are also enrolled in a youth apprenticeship program.
“The opportunities from SkillsUSA open doors to careers and teach students the value of hard work and dedication,” Lloyd says.
There’s not an official number of how many students go from the SkillsUSA program to studying a technical skill or joining an apprenticeship program after high school graduation, but Abitz says from what he has seen, it’s pretty high.
“The majority of students do enter the trades or a technical career,” he says. “We see our students go into the automotive field or into a similar occupation like welding and manufacturing where they can use the skills they’ve gained in the program.”
While there is growing interest among students in the skilled trades as a career option, Kindred says there is still more work to do.
“We have to cut through some of the myths parents or the students themselves may have. They need to realize these are in-demand, high-skill careers,” he says. “There’s a skilled worker shortage, and we want parents to see these opportunities for their sons and daughters in these careers. These careers are a sure way to the middle class.”