For decades, construction skills contests have been attracting students, apprentices and journey-level craft professionals to show their stuff. Participants spend weeks, months and even years honing their skills and testing their endurance in preparation for the events. Winners get medals and bragging rights; industry gains skilled and promotable employees.

More than a dozen major national contests take place in the U.S. each year. Some bring together several dozen craftworkers, while others involve hundreds of competitors.

At the Spec Mix Bricklayer 500 World Championship at the World of Concrete in Las Vegas, 23 two-person teams wield trowels before thousands of cheering spectators, many video cameras and even color commentators. In contrast, at the Associated Builders and Contractors National Craft Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., trainees representing a dozen crafts endure an intense two-hour written exam before tackling daylong performance tests.

The Ironworkers’ union apprentice competition this year required the 78 participants to demonstrate their abilities at surveying, rebar tying, welding, rigging and column climbing. “Of our 15,000 apprentices, these are the best,” says Lee Worley, the union’s executive director of apprenticeships and training. “I’m amazed at the amount of talent we see out there. Our future is in good hands.”

SkillsUSA, the largest contest, features more than 300 high school and college students going head-to-head in six disciplines. Boyd Worsham, vice president of construction support for Haskell Co., competed in a state-level carpentry contest as a high school student. In recent years, as chair of the technical committee overseeing that contest, he is continually impressed at the quality of the entrants. “To get to the national contest, they’ve already won at two levels. They have a level of maturity and leadership that goes with that and some level of confidence, also.”

One side benefit of the competitions is their ability to open competitors’ minds to wider industry career possibilities. Ironworker competitors “get to see the union’s upper management watching the contests,” says Worley.  “They’ve got this carrot dangling in front of them” to pursue management roles, such as general foreman, superintendent, business manager, apprenticeship coordinator or executive positions at the international level.

Not surprisingly, each contest serves as a showcase of industry talent. “At SkillsUSA, we send sponsors a résumé book so they can cherry-pick the best workers,” says Steve Greene, vice president of the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), which provides craft training materials to the industry. “That’s a huge benefit, given the $3,500 to $5,000 cost of recruiting a single worker.”

Worsham acknowledges that he is one of the cherry pickers. “Identifying talent is the challenge of recruiting—the hard part of the process,” he points out. “I’m shocked that more companies aren’t doing this yet.”

Almost all the contests rely heavily on volunteer mentors. Worsham oversees a group of 20 volunteers, including carpentry instructors, trade group officials and corporate managers who handle everything from competition setups to workshops and judging. Many volunteers—such as ABC’s John Lupacchino, named the group’s instructor of the year for 2016—are former skills champs.

Winners experience continuing effects from their victories. “A lot of companies leverage that they have the world champion working for them,” says Brian Carney, vice president of Spec Mix. “It’s an unbelievable marketing and brand-building tool.” In the pages that follow, ENR offers close-ups of the competitions and their participants.