Craft Competitions: SkillsUSA is the Olympics for Construction Trades
SkillsUSA is a virtual Olympics of career skills. High school and technical college contestants progress from state-level competitions to regionals and then to a national showdown in Louisville. The 51st annual event took place June 20-24, with 6,000 students competing in 100 contests, of which six are construction-related: carpentry, electrical construction wiring, HVAC, masonry, plumbing and welding. The high school and college divisions are separate, with each awarding gold, silver and bronze medals.
This year’s carpentry contest featured 46 high school competitors and 28 community college entrants. “All the competitors build the same project. We let them have the drawings at the start, so they can come up with their plan of attack,” says Boyd Worsham, technical chairman for the carpentry contest and vice president of construction support for Haskell Co. “Each competitor leaves with about $1,400 worth of tools.”
The electrical wiring contest begins with an orientation and written exams on the first day, which is also when contestants select the materials they will need. Contestants then install electric boxes and conduits, as well as wiring and switches, followed by afternoon presentations from sponsors that give workshops on their products.
On the last day, organizers present their findings on the whole group’s skill strengths and point out areas needing more improvement. “This year’s winner received about $10,000 worth of tools, clothing and footwear,” says Greg Rachal, contest chairman and president of POPS Electric LLC.
“SkillsUSA is a true business-education partnership, helping to make sure that technical skills are grounded in academics,” says Tim Lawrence, its executive director. “When teachers see what industry expects, they take it back to their schools, which ensures that students are learning what industry demands.”
Competitive Carpentry Runs in the Family
This year, Matthew Volmer had a bit of an edge over some other contenders vying for the gold medal in the college division of the SkillsUSA carpentry competition. At age 20, Volmer had participated in the competition before and had also won the top slot last year. The two-time gold medalist has been a carpenter for two years.
Volmer also has completed an associate’s degree in construction trades from Fort Scott Community College in Fort Scott, Kan., and he runs a general contracting business, with his father as a part-owner. After two years, it has two part-time employees.
ENR: Why did you decide to compete?
Volmer: I’ve pretty much been around construction my whole life. My dad was a mechanic for a construction company that did bridge work, and I guess I like staying really busy. For this year’s competition, I practiced at the community college, as I did for the competitions in years past. With the help of an instructor, I’d time myself doing the work.
How did it feel to compete at the national level?
This year was a little trickier, with all the various angles on [the competition demonstration module which each contestant had to build]. We had to put fascia and subfascia on a Dutch hip roof. My brother, Mason, 17, also was competing. … I pushed him to do it—it’s good experience and a chance to meet others in the trade. It was nice seeing my brother competing in nationals; he won a silver medal.
What has winning meant for you?
After being [at nationals] in 2015, I knew there was some healthy competition returning. It was pretty stressful watching the guy from Alabama, two contestants down, who was neck-in-neck with me. I won by one point. … But they treat you right with the prizes: Every contestant gets two cordless drills and a saw set.
What are your career goals?
I plan to continue working in construction. I’m doing 10,000-sq-ft [concrete] pours now, and I do everything from foundation work to door knobs. My dad has excavation equipment.
Electrical Competition is Tight Race
Daniel Leonard took a circuitous route to the industry. He went to college to be a teacher but while in school worked in a lumberyard and became interested in the construction trades. He also became familiar with the field through his brother, a carpenter, and other friends in the trades. He switched gears as a result.
In 2015, while studying to be an electrician at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa, Leonard learned from an instructor about the SkillsUSA competition. The Clearfield, Iowa, resident liked the idea of competing against other electricians, while honing his skills. He made it to the finals of the competition last year, coming in twelfth in a field of 40. This year Leonard, an electrician for three years, came in first as college division gold medalist in the electrical construction category.
ENR: Why did you decide to compete in SkillsUSA?
Leonard: My instructor at the time—Jeff Stuber—had just taken some students to the [SkillsUSA] state competition, and he told my class it was a good experience to get out and meet others, and to learn and compete for a week. I guess I’ve always had that competitive edge.
How did you prepare for the competition?
The same way as last year. From the beginning. my instructor had a [practice competition module] in the classroom. After I was at the state contest, I built a practice cubicle in my garage and prepared there.
I worked from five different sets of blueprints and created my own blueprints for conduits and went through the whole thing at least twice a week for weeks leading up to the national competition. I had it down to where I could get it done in just under four hours, because timing is part of the competition. This year, my instructor, Mark Bonneville, also was helpful, carrying on where my former instructor left off. He was very helpful on technique, and in getting materials and supplies for me. My employer, Nunyon Plumbing and Heating of Kellertown, Iowa, also helped by donating contest materials.
What was it like to meet so many other members of your trade at the competition?
I honestly didn’t think I had a shot at winning, but I was hoping to make the top ten. I met a lot of nice people from different states. It’s interesting to see how electrical techniques vary from region to region. I got to know about five other competitors well over that week.