Grand Rapids market tests SkillsUSA championship students


A SkillsUSA student participates in a welding competition. Photo via

Hundreds of students from across Michigan will gather in Grand Rapids this weekend to participate in one of more than 75 SkillsUSA championship competitions.

The competitions each focus on high-demand career fields such as manufacturing, transportation, construction, hospitality and service occupations. Students demonstrate their skills within their chosen field, working against the clock, to show their expertise in practical application contests like welding, computer-aided drafting, precision machining, automotive service, culinary arts, cosmetology and criminal justice.

Each competing student has earned his or her place in the statewide competition through participation in a regional competition held earlier this year.

Patrick Kozlowski runs the electronics technology state competition, which includes three parts. First, students complete a 50-question, one hour written exam; then they are given two hours to design a functioning circuit; and finally they have one hour to complete a surface mount component soldering project, which involves very small components.

“I think what they gain is a real worldview of what engineering is,” Kozlowski said. “They understand what it takes to design a circuit … it gives them different ideas on what is in the electronics field. It’s not just what they learn in the classroom.

“I bring examples and show them what I am currently working on as part of my industry. They gain a better view of what the industry is like, what’s out there, and what it takes to succeed in industry.”

Kozlowski said two winners would be selected to move forward to the national SkillsUSA competition – one secondary education student and one post-secondary student. Both will then compete in an eight-hour project against students from across the country.

Students pursuing electronic technology careers have a lot of options from which to choose. Kozlowski, who works in automotive electronics, said that field is growing substantially. He also noted that the health sector has increasing career opportunities, as does the cellular phone industry, and that there are many other industries where students can apply their engineering talents.

In addition to benefitting the student competitors, Kozlowski said SkillsUSA competitions have also helped teachers update their curriculum to fit with industry needs.

“Teachers will come to me and say, ‘I saw you put this in the exam.’ And I’ll say, ‘well, yeah, that’s what we are doing in industry, they need to know that.’ There are a couple of things I’ve instituted that are now part of everyone’s curriculum… This competition in general helps with the development of the electronics curriculum throughout the state of Michigan.”

Each career area has its own time parameters and uniquely designed challenge.

Eleven student teams, made up of two students each, will compete in a seven-hour 3D visualization and animation competition during the weekend. The competition will include the creation of a 30- to 45-second animation, which must include three animated objects.

Students will be judged on several project elements, with 1,000 total points possible. Judging is based on storyboards as well as the teamwork utilized in creating the storyboard, modeling, textures and visual effectiveness, rendering, lighting and overall quality. The students also must turn in a resume and adhere to a dress code for the competition, each of which is also worth points in the contest.

Richard VanderMey, who is involved in the 3D contest and was once a SkillsUSA competitor and statewide winner, said that he is amazed by the imagination and creativity shown by the students each year. Although each team is presented with the same challenge, the outcome is completely unique.

“Their creativity is out of this world,” VanderMey said.

Students come from all different backgrounds and have a variety of interests in the field of 3D animation.

“We get them from everywhere,” he said. “We don’t have just the gamer geeks or the artist guy, we have some Plain Jane kids that just want to do 3D art,” he said. “The thing that really excites me is the amount of young ladies that we see now competing. When I first started competing it was mostly male dominated and you were lucky to even see a young lady come in there. Now, we are seeing teams of young ladies.”

He noted that the contest really mimics the time management aspects necessary in the field of 3D animation, which is a very deadline-driven industry.

“It’s a real-world scenario … the situation they are under gives them an opportunity to strut their stuff. It can actually be quite stressful for some of the young people,” he said.

VanderMey thinks one of the most important benefits of the 3D competition is the work that students are then able to add to their portfolio, which is a must for job interviews.

There will be 1,100 students competing in the competitions and 500 judges involved in scoring the contests. The judges all are professionals within the industry that they are judging.

Tammy Brown, SkillsUSA state director, said the students get the unique opportunity of meeting professionals from their future industries and possibly even score a job.

“The competitors have to turn in their resume and the reason for that is, number one, we are preparing them for work so they need a resume,” Brown said. “The judges, at the other end, might say, ‘Hey I really liked contestant No. 5.’ So then you find the resume for contestant No. 5 and say, ‘Here you go.’”

Brown said the experience of coming to a big city like Grand Rapids also is beneficial for the students.

“This is our first year in Grand Rapids and I know they are going to be totally overwhelmed when we come here tomorrow,” she said. “A lot of these students are from small rural towns. They have one stoplight and a McDonalds, and that is as much as they have as far as a city, so they are going to be totally amazed to be here in a big city, in a nice hotel, and having that experience.

“A lot of them don’t travel, they’ve never been out of their county, so just coming here and having that experience of being here with other like-minded people, here for the same reason, and then being able to go out and walk the town and see the hospitality that is here in Grand Rapids, I think that is a bigger experience for them than taking a medal.”

Typically the SkillsUSA state championship is held in Lansing, but the move to Grand Rapids was made this year to meet the logistical needs of the contest.

“We have so many different needs compared to a regular conference,” Brown said. “We need kitchens. We need welders. We need firefighters. The city of Grand Rapids opened their arms and the businesses opened their arms.”

Some of the organizations that are participating as venues for the contests include the Amway Grand Plaza, Plainfield Fire Department and Fox Ford — which is hosting the collision challenge.

SkillsUSA began in 1965 under the name Vocational Industrial Clubs of America. Students and teachers founded the organization to highlight professions they felt could benefit from more leadership training. It originally included clubs in 14 states.

By 1985, its 20th anniversary, membership had grown to 12,632 chapters. Today, nearly 17,000 classrooms in more than 3,700 public schools in all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., and three U.S. territories participate. During the course of its history, the organization reports serving more than 10.9 million members.

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