Skills for life

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…In the endearing and enduring tale of Star Wars, legions of specially trained Jedi Knights were needed to maintain peace in the Universe. The training of the students of the Jedi Order evolved over many millennial, but essentially, the foundation of their education consisted of hard skills like combat and Force techniques, as well as soft skills like maintaining inner peace while enduring stressful challenges. (This could involve balancing upside down on a post in the midst of a storm.)

The students had Master Jedi mentors. They grew stronger through structured competition. And they were committed to being good citizens of the universe. This educational framework of technical skills, personal skills and leadership skills resulted in a highly effective Order that protected the Republic for hundreds of years.

While today’s schools are not training mystical mighty Jedi Knights to protect the Universe, they are tasked with successfully preparing and transitioning young adults into the workforce. Ask any educator today, and you will undoubtedly find that this is an epic challenge the world over. Despite high employment rates in the United States and across the world, there are an increasingly large number of good paying jobs that aren’t filled because of a lack of applicants possessing the necessary skill set.

Despite high employment rates in the United States and across the world, there are an increasingly large number of good paying jobs that aren’t filled because of a lack of applicants possessing the necessary skill set.

Reports estimate that more than 600,000 skilled jobs are going unfilled. One of the primary reasons is that prospective employees that have the technical training often lack the complimentary interpersonal skills, professional mindset and other soft skills that today’s marketplace requires.

“I can tell you as a manager of technical people, we have a massive skills gap,” says Jack Frederick, service manager at Foley Equipment Company, a Kansas Caterpillar dealer. “My company is continually looking for technicians, and qualified ones are rarely available. They may have technical skills, but they don’t have the employability skills. They can fix an engine, but they don’t know how to get along with my team or communicate professionally with customers, vendors or manufacturers.”

Obviously, employers today aren’t looking for Jedi Knights wielding light sabers (we love this analogy) to fill positions, but they are looking for well-rounded applicants – possibly wielding wrenches or drills – that have the powerful, universally coveted trio of technical, personal and workplace skills. Fortunately, many companies are finding career-ready employees thanks to SkillsUSA, a well-established youth development training organization that successfully partners students, educators and industry to foster and impart the necessary technical, personal and employability skills that are needed to fill today’s skills gap.

Photo by Lloyd Wolf for SkillsUSA

The Universal Trio for Success

“There is a threatening skills gap in this country and across the world, and one of the important solutions is SkillsUSA,” says executive director Tim Lawrence. “We do that through a structured formalized program that offers our students the technical training in demand in U.S. and global marketplaces while also instilling workplace skills and personal and professional skills. We are building well-rounded employees that are good citizens and leaders – not just technically skilled workers. Our students can enter the workforce and be productive and successful.”

“We are building well-rounded employees that are good citizens and leaders – not just technically skilled workers. Our students can enter the workforce and be productive and successful.”

Photos by Lloyd Wolf for SkillsUSA

Lawrence says the organization has a tremendous impact on the lives of America’s future workforce through the development of its SkillsUSA Framework – personal, workplace and technical skills grounded in academics. The successful framework emphasizes: integrity, work ethics, professionalism, communication, teamwork and computer and technology literacy along with job-specific hard skills like welding, carpentry and masonry.

Lawrence and Frederick are both products of SkillsUSA’s training program. Lawrence has been involved with SkillsUSA since he was a high school student decades ago. “I grew up in the coal fields of southern West Virginia,” he says. “When I got involved with this program, it totally changed my life. I was a smart student, doing OK, but probably on the verge of being bored and leaving high school. But then I got involved with SkillsUSA, took up welding, and suddenly I was applying math and science to real-world applications – tangible meaningful applications – and a light came on. I was transformed. I could see a future with the skills and knowledge that I was learning, and my goals became higher.”

Frederick, 27, became involved with SkillsUSA in 2005. “I wasn’t a bad student in high school, but I didn’t particularly have any direction or goals. Then I joined SkillsUSA my senior year and jumped right in – that immediately provided direction. That soon led to becoming a president for the state of Kansas and eventually the national president of the college division. I also competed in automotive technology and eventually brought home a silver medal at nationals, and later competed in the international World Skills organization against 44 other countries, again earning a Silver Medal.”

The responsibility and experience prepared Frederick for the workplace and a successful career at a young age. “SkillsUSA puts you in situations that force you to grow in a productive way,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate to have had strong mentors and to have experienced both sides of the program – leadership and competition. I’ve come full circle with the organization. The more I put in the more I got out, and it’s been life changing.”

Snapshot on the SkillsUSA Mission

SkillsUSA changes lives every day. Lawrence and Frederick are just two of the hundreds of thousands of success stories associated with the dynamic nonprofit. For more than 50 years similar students have been discovering and growing their career passions and their own self worth through the work and dedication of instructors, administrators, state association directors, industry partners and alumni mentors.

Since its inception in 1965, nearly 12 million students have benefitted from this program. Today, in high schools and colleges across the country, more than 300,000 students organized into more than 15,000 local chapters and 52 state and territorial associations are taking advantage of the skill development and resume building opportunities that SkillsUSA offers. In 2015, more than 17,000 teachers served as professional SkillsUSA advisors.

As these students are preparing for careers in technical, skilled, service and health occupations, they augment their hard skills training with leadership development by holding office, serving their community and participating in the SkillsUSA Championships. More than 10,000 of these contests are held each year, culminating in the national championships in Louisville, Ky., each June.

While the program fosters a competitive spirit and opportunities for recognition, it also provides a vehicle for students and industry to interface. This link with industry ensures that technical training programs are current and meet the latest industry standards. “As technologies evolve, we evolve,” Lawrence says. “Our program and training emphasis evolves along with the industries because industry is continually setting the standards.”

Value to Industry

More than 600 business, industry and labor organizations (Harley-Davidson, Lowe’s, Caterpillar, Air Products, Newell Rubbermaid, Toyota Motor Sales, Snap-on Incorporated, and scores of others) actively support SkillsUSA at the national level through financial aid, in-kind contributions and involvement of their people in SkillsUSA activities. Many more work directly with state associations and local chapters. Commitment by industry to the annual national SkillsUSA Championships is valued at more than $36 million.

It’s hard to put a price tag on the reciprocal value the organization provides to industry. Participating companies have the opportunity to shape the program to ensure that students are career-ready and trained to industry standards. They also can cultivate relationships with young talent that will one day step up to leadership roles in their respective companies.

Frederick met his current Caterpillar employer at a SkillsUSA function when he was a high school student and SkillsUSA state president at a business meeting with some SkillsUSA supporters. “I was 17 years old, we were having dinner, I had just given a speech, I sat back down, and he looked across the table at me and said, ‘Jack, I’m a vice president at the local Caterpillar dealership and you’re going to work for me someday whether you know it or not.’ I was a car guy, not a diesel guy, so I told him there was no way. But after a few tough years in the car business, I changed my mind and came to work for Foley Equipment.”

With thousands of skilled baby boomer workers slated for retirement within the next few years, demand for skilled workers increasing, and technology rapidly evolving, predictions are that 10 million additional skilled workers will be needed by 2020. SkillsUSA, often referred to as a well-kept secret, is poised to help fill that need. The talent pipeline is in place.

Says Lawrence: “We know this program succeeds and we hope to lift up even more students in the future and help transform our schools, communities and our country.”

Join the movement

For more information on SkillsUSA or to join the movement, visit

The Lowdown on SkillsUSA

From the National Leadership and Skills Conference each June, to the Washington Leadership Training Institute in September, and the SkillsUSA Week held each February, the organization offers many different events to help students grow. Here’s a look at some of the programs it offers:

The SkillsUSA National Conference is a showcase of career and technical education skills, where students get to work against the clock and each other. The conference attracts up to 15,000 each year, and helps build expertise in occupations such as electronics, computer-aided drafting, precision machining, medical assisting and culinary arts. See America’s best entry-level workers compete in 100 hands on skill and leadership contests. On the cutting edge of technology, these contests – which are open to the public – are run with the help of more than 600 industry, trade associations and labor organizations.
Held in the midst of the SkillsUSA Championships, the SkillsUSA TECHSPO trade show features hundreds of exhibitors, and is the largest showcase of career and technical education in the nation. TECHSPO allows students and instructors to see new products and innovations in technology. In addition, company representatives can exchange information with students and talk about employment opportunities. There also are more than 50 educational workshops held as part of SkillsUSA University.
SkillsUSA invites all of its chapters to conduct or promote a community service project during SkillsUSA National Week of Service. This program helps harness the power of student members and brings attention to career and technical education. With more time for chapters to plan their community service efforts, SkillsUSA is hoping to increase the number of chapters participating.


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