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Every June, Kansas City's convention center undergoes a massive transformation. Who makes it happen, and why do they keep coming back?

For those who attend the SkillsUSA Championships in Kansas City, Mo., H. Roe Bartle Hall on competition day is an amazing sight. More than 4,000 students in 75 different skill and leadership competitions fill a space larger than nine football fields. If you haven’t seen it in person, words scarcely do it justice.

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It seems almost miraculous that in just a few short days, Bartle Hall can go from being completely empty to what one observer calls a “mini-city.”

But it’s not a miracle that transforms Bartle Hall; it’s good, old-fashioned work, or — to be specific — labor. Without the support of organized labor in Kansas City, the SkillsUSA Championships wouldn’t be as successful as they are now.

“The unions are an invaluable asset to us in that they take the responsibility no one else would to move all the equipment in and out of Bartle Hall,” says James Kregiel, SkillsUSA Championships program manager. “Without them, the Championships wouldn’t happen to the degree it does now. We can now allocate resources to other jobs that might have gone undone in the past.”

Ann Wick, SkillsUSA’s associate director for Kansas City partnerships, agrees. Calling union support “critical” to the success of the Championships, Wick says, “These folks step up and provide their professional expertise in support of the student-contestants. Our union partners are the best!”

Building a brighter future

Joseph Pink, education director for the Builders Association, has been directly involved in SkillsUSA for more than 12 years.

A former vocational director who holds a doctorate, Pink was already a believer in what America’s youth could accomplish. “I’ve always had a lot of confidence in young people,” he says.

Photo by Lloyd Wolf

That confidence notwithstanding, the sheer size of the event also inspires his admiration for the participants in the Championships.

“These are the best of the best, and they have worked hard for a place to be here in Kansas City at Bartle Hall,” Pink adds.

“It says a lot about persistence, maturity and attitude on the part of the young people in the contests.

“My hat is off to them, because it’s part of a process they have to go through for a young person to have that maturity about it and be that focused.”

His admiration goes beyond the national competition, though, because SkillsUSA students make good employees.

“I know that in the building industry, we could take every one of those young people and put them in an apprenticeship program,” he says.

According to Pink, the building trades in Kansas City were not always involved in the area schools’ skills training programs.

“Being an educator and being involved in vocational education, I personally saw a natural flow of these young people coming into our programs and into our industry,” he recalls. “That linkage is certainly something I've seen change.”

A spark of interest

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) is a long-standing partner of SkillsUSA, donating time and money for the students.

Jerry Mook is an instructor at the IBEW training center in Kansas City. Mook wasn’t very familiar with SkillsUSA when he started helping out with the Championships. He had heard of it but didn’t know what it was.

His first impressions were very positive. “I thought, ‘Wow, what a neat program!’” he says. “Since then, we have brought in several of our international officers to take a look at this and have been able to open the eyes of several of the apprenticeships around the country.”

Mook also recommends SkillsUSA members for electrical apprenticeship programs. “All of our instructors are on the screening committee as they come in, and if they put down SkillsUSA we take a good look at them, because we’ve found out how good it really is,” he adds.

“I never cease to be amazed at the magnitude of the show. Being a part of it gives you a better outlook on the future.”

Further, Mook often recommends state competition winners who come to Kansas City to their locals back home. “When we see these kids — any of them — win state, and if they’re in a place where we know we have a local union there, we send a recommendation,” he says.

Terry Akins, a welding instructor at the IBEW training center, agrees. Involved since 1996, Akins learned about SkillsUSA when he came on board as an electrical apprentice in Kansas City’s Local 124. Akins says he sees a lot of value to the program. “I never cease to be amazed at the magnitude of the show. Being a part of it gives you a better outlook on the future.”

Not that there aren’t a few things he would like to see change. Akins expresses concern over the number of imported goods and machinery at the conference.

“If we don’t teach these kids to support the U.S. and its industries, there will be no reason to train them,” he points out. “Look around at what is happening to the jobs we are training them for. They’re vanishing –– fast. If we are going to talk the talk, then we better walk the walk as well.”

'A pretty neat idea'

Russ Orth is a member of Teamsters Local 41. Like many Teamsters, he was recruited to help out at the Championships by Eldon Williams, who managed and organized the Teamster volunteers for SkillsUSA in Kansas City.

Orth didn’t know much about SkillsUSA at the time. “My daughter was involved in DECA, but I was not very familiar with SkillsUSA,” he explains. Nevertheless, at Williams’ request, he came to help out.

“The first year, I just showed up and said, ‘What do you need?’” Orth says. “After the first day of talking to the teacher volunteers and seeing some of the stuff come together, I thought it was a pretty neat idea.”

“As the week went on, I heard more of the individual teacher’s stories, and watching the competition come together, seeing that side of it really kind of hooked me. I’ve been back every year since.”

The size of the event is something that still amazes him. “We put in shows at Bartle Hall throughout the year, but there are very few that take up the entire Bartle Hall area,” Orth explains.

“Now we take up Bartle Hall, some of the Municipal Auditorium and Kemper Arena. Now, that’s huge!” End of story

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SkillsUSA Champions | Summer 2003 | Volume 37, No. 1
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