The annual SkillsUSA Championship doesn’t have the name recognition of the Super Bowl or the Summer Olympics but it is every bit the spectacle. Each year, more than 6,400 students gather in Louisville, Ky., to take part in the world’s largest hands-on skills competition, demonstrating their mastery of engineering, carpentry, smart home technology, construction, cybersecurity, graphic design and more. (Learn more about the competition here.)
For three days in June, the Kentucky Exposition Center was once again transformed into a small town filled with talented young craftswomen and craftsmen from around the country taking part in the National Leadership and Skills Conference (NLSC). The conference was this year’s culmination of Leesburg, Va.-based SkillsUSA’s ongoing mission to promote the technical and soft skills that employers are looking for in the workplace today and that SkillsUSA’s students have.
SkillsUSA is a national organization whose members are enrolled in public career and technical education programs in middle schools, high schools and community colleges.
Executive Director Tim Lawrence says the non-profit is the conduit for students, educators and more than 600 industry partners to advance skills training. “The magic of SkillsUSA is its connections to business and industry, strengthening the talent pipeline from schools to the workplace,” he notes.
Working with its industry partners, the organization offers guidance and resources to 1,900 chapters across the country to ensure the members stand out among applicants competing for jobs in the skills trade. Each year, the programs train more than 340,000 teens and young adults around 130 occupations, graduating more than 100,000 job-ready students.
SkillsUSA’s strategy to develop skilled workers comes at a critical time in the U.S. labor market. Although the construction industry is booming, the gap between the number of open positions and the skilled workers capable of filling them has never been greater. The latest figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., show 369,000 open jobs in the construction industry nationwide. (See the figures here.)
With schools and public funding focused more on increasing college employment rather than creating a talent pipeline for employers, it has led to the disconnect between job seekers and employers, as well as widened the skills gap. Many students are exiting college without degrees and with insurmountable debt. Meanwhile, employers report students are entering the workforce short on soft skills, like communication and problem-solving.
Reversing the “college or bust” trend requires raising awareness about the opportunities for younger workers without a four-year degree. SkillsUSA also makes the trades more appealing to a new generation by adding an emphasis on technology and elevating them to competition status. The same reverence that sports legends receive is bestowed on competitors whether they are a master at applying mortar to bricks or can control a robotic arm.