Ask Tim

Contest champions aren’t made in a day; it’s a journey. There are lots of ways to prepare for your upcoming local, state or national competitions. For advice, we went to the experts.

By Craig E. Moore

Web Resources

  • Be sure and check out the SkillsUSA Championships section online for all the latest contest information. You can access it from anywhere on the site. Just click the link labeled “Championships.” To get there directly, click here.

There are a lot of bases to cover when you’re competing in the SkillsUSA Championships. What skills are most important to have? In what areas are many students unprepared? Listen to what the national contest organizers have to say.

Automotive Service Technology
Susan Christopherson, ACDelco
Although technical skills are important, the automotive contest requires students to demonstrate professionalism and the ability to use critical thinking. The students that do well in this contest are the ones that not only are familiar with the vehicle systems — using the tools and doing the tasks — but also are able to think through a problem and recognize what is needed to get the best results.

Repeat winners keep an eye on standards

West Jordan (Utah) High School instructors Steve Stevens and Rick Minor have had their share of medalists. They say the key to success at the state and national levels is running contests as close the national standard as possible.

With this simple philosophy, the two have racked up six medals at the SkillsUSA Championships (two gold, three silver, one bronze) in Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

“The trick to winning OCC medals is to start early and have success to build from,” Stevens says. “Our teams are built from our mistakes, trying new things and having a lot of fun.”

If you’d like to reach the national level, remember these advisors’ advice and follow the latest edition of SkillsUSA Championships Technical Standards.

This competition is about following directions and doing things right. When diagnosing an electrical circuit, a student is required to use a digital volt ohm meter on wiring and connections. How well the students understand that tool and how competent they are at taking measurements without damaging the components or the equipment is important. Similarly, many surgeons know how to use a scalpel, but a really good surgeon knows how to use the scalpel like an artist’s tool during the operation and also finish the job with skill.

Underlying all of this is the contestants’ attitude. They must believe in their ability and have a strong desire to do well.

A lot of emphasis is placed on advanced technology today because vehicles have become so complex. Contestants have been taught to use highly sophisticated equipment to perform diagnostics but may not have a good grasp of the basics that would allow them to use a more strategic approach to solving problems. All too often, the contestants don’t understand basic electricity or general physics. They lack the understanding that these tasks require a combination of overall knowledge of how things work and why things should be done a certain way. It’s not just about doing a task for the sake of getting the job done.

Health Occupations Professional Portfolio
Sandee Sutter, Health Resource Partners
Generally, participants have good presentation skills and excellent use of technology. Some contestants have difficulty clearly stating their career objective and having the portfolio document their progress toward the objective. Some contestants encounter difficulty with the relationship of the professional portfolio to their presentation. The presentation focuses on the contestant and how they progressively plan to achieve their career objective. The portfolio supports, and is reflected in, the presentation.

Dick Redpath, Black & Decker (U.S.) Inc.
The important skills are layout skills, which include reading blueprints/drawings, cutting accurately, measuring accurately, and assembling and completing to the tolerances specified in drawings. The skill they need most is the ability to read the blueprints/drawings.

A shaky start, but she won’t give up

Jennifer Smith has learned a thing or two about persistence through the SkillsUSA Championships. The first time she competed in the national Industrial Motor Control contest, she left the floor in tears.

“I thought I knew everything. I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t,” she says.

The next day, contest chair Bob Baird went over the rules with her and encouraged her to stick with it. She left determined to come back the next year. “I never wanted to be in that position again,” Smith recalls. So she went home and worked harder.

Sure enough, she made it back. While she didn’t earn a medal, she learned even more and says, “I know what I need to work on.”

Now in her senior year at McEachern High School in Powder Springs, Ga., Smith is planning to return for 2003. A true champion never quits.

Quiz Bowl
Barbara Stevens, Wayne-Fingerlakes BOCES, New York
The most important skills include understanding the rules as published in the SkillsUSA Championships Technical Standards and asking questions through the Web site ( Last year, we needed pencils for the qualifying test, and some teams really scrambled to be ready. Teams will be well prepared if they read, practice and ask questions before arriving.

Diesel Equipment Technology
Jack Sukala, J.Jeb Mfg. Co.
The intangible, “nontechnical” skills of problem solving, communication, safety, courtesy, common sense and working under a time constraint serve competitors to help achieve the goal of “champion.” We have seen over the course of many competitions that the loss of 30 points out of 1,400 possible points is the difference between a champion and a good finish. The Diesel contest committee finds many contestants with a good score, but obviously only six as a medal-recognized champion.

The vast majority of competitors are well prepared in most areas of technical skill. If any area is to be highlighted, we would single out electrical (basic knowledge of low voltage principles, terms, diagnostics) and use of precision measurement tools (reading micrometers).

A recurring observation is the inability to use a common “shop manual” of major truck components — how to look up specifications to solve a written or hands-on task.

CNC Machining
Paul Koontz, Denford Inc.
Many of the contestants display technical skills but are lacking listening and organizational skills. The biggest technical skill that I see most contestants lacking appropriate levels of is math.

One last issue is that many contestants rush through the contest and make “dumb” mistakes.

Like father, like son — must be in the wiring?

Champions aren’t born, they’re made, right? In the case of the Thibeault family, maybe we’ll make an exception. With two generations of gold medalists, it’s a good reason to consider the possibility.

Leo Thibeault won the gold in residential wiring in 1979 while attending Woonsocket (R.I.) Area Career and Technical Center. His son Keith Thibeault also won the gold in Residential Wiring in 2002. Guess what? He attended the same school.

“To think that we’d be interested in the same thing in high school and do so well at it is sort of weird and priceless at the same time,” Keith says of their accomplishment.

Enrolled at the New England Institute of Technology, Keith is also his state’s SkillsUSA postsecondary president. Bet dad is proud!

Dental Assisting
Anna Long, Fort Hayes Metropolitan Education Center, Ohio
We recommend that the contestant obtain a desk copy of Torres and Ehrlich’s Modern Dental Assisting, sixth edition. Our committee used this text as a guide and reference for the 2002 Dental Assisting competition.

What skills do we find lacking? Infection control in dentistry. Moisture control. Disinfection and sterilization. Use of dental instruments and accessories, and impression materials. Laboratory procedures. Dental cements. Inventory management, dental insurance, radiation, employment and dental specialties.

Job Skill Demonstration
Sam Williams, Lamar Institute of Technology, Texas
Many of our contestants fail to read the contest rules and scoring sheets. Many contestants have a great demonstration but fail to introduce the audience to what they will be doing and what they will be using. The introduction and closing are worth a total of 20 points and can cost them a place in competition.

One of the other important skills is to discuss any item you bring to the demonstration. If you are not going to use an item, please leave it behind.

The last bit of advice, which is very important, is to practice your demonstration for as many strangers as possible to get over stage fright.

Graphic Communications
Jerry Himmelberg, Banta Publications Group
A good combination of both technical and soft skills is important. On the technical side, the students need to be “digitally driven” and understand how work flows through today’s printing plant.

On the soft skills side, the students need to be good problem-solvers, have good communications skills, be open to change and make good decisions.

Of the two, probably the soft skills are most important. Printing today is more than just laying down ink on paper.

Making a difference where it counts most

Kisha James wants to help inner-city youth, and she’s not allowing anything to stand in her way.

At the World Skills Competition in 2001, the SkillsUSA member was part of the highest-scoring American team in history. More recently, she was a medalist in the World Championship of Hairdressing. Next in her sights is owning a chain of beauty salons.

And what better place to start than her hometown? In September, she opened KJ Designz Hair Gallery, in the heart of Rochester, N.Y. Her reasoning: to be a role model for young people in an area where turbulence and despair can prey on those in their formative years.

“They just need to see that someone their age is making a difference and they can too,” she says. Is there any greater accomplishment?

Preschool Teaching Assistant
Nancy Bartlett, Utah Valley State College, Utah
An important skill is understanding how children learn: how children construct mental meaning through interacting with their environment.

Food and Beverage Service
Laura Eddy-Vogt, Eddys’ Catering
It is important to possess poise, cleanliness, uniformity in dress, positive disposition and an obvious service-oriented attitude toward the guest. Contestants tend to lack confidence and the ability to regurgitate menu specifics to the guests.

Keith Albright, Home Builders Institute
Safety skills and basic measuring and framing procedures are the basics for carpentry. I am always surprised by the lack of safety practices students display during competition.

Too often students arrive for competition totally unprepared. By this I mean that the student, instructor and advisor appear to have not reviewed the contest standards.

Some students have arrived without tools, claiming their instructor told them that tools would be provided.

Someone needs to work closer with the students prior to departure for the contest.

Building Maintenance
Marvin Miller, Millstream North Career Center, Findlay, Ohio
Competitors need to be able to bonnet scrub and extract carpets, in addition to stripping and finishing tile floors. Anybody can dust and sweep. I find that some states send students who haven’t any experience with floor machines. At a national contest, the standards need to be high.

Basic Health Care Skills
Leslie Menges, Ohio State University Medical Center
The most important skills? Content knowledge of CPR, first aid, human anatomy and physiology. Ability to maintain patient safety. And the character qualities of dependability, integrity and respect for self and others. The skills most often lacking in our contestants are basic skills of reading, math and spelling.

Residential Wiring
Ken Haden, National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee
One of the most important skills, if not the most important, is organizational ability. There are several different modules to the competition, and each is accompanied by a couple of different prints, standards and instructions. Each module also uses several different types of electrical devices and materials. It is important for the competitor to be able to organize all of this information and all of these various parts in an orderly fashion to be able to successfully complete the contest. I think most of our contestants lack time management skills when they arrive. A great number are unable to complete the contest in the time allowed.

From the sideline to the frontline

Barry Rock went to his first state SkillsUSA conference and came away a changed man.

Rock got involved in 2001, when he began working for Delta Dental Plan of Massachusetts. His company sponsors an internship program for Northeast Regional Vocational Technical High School in Wakefield.

“I was in awe at what these young adults do for this organization and how much it has to offer them, ” he says. “It is nice to see good things happening in high schools today.”

Rock plans to stay involved. In fact, he was recently elected to Massachusetts SkillsUSA’s board of directors.

Power Equipment Technology
Dave Worden, Kohler Co.
Contestants need to understand the basics in power equipment technology. This includes ignition, carburetion, electrical and the special items that belong to a particular manufacturer. They need to be able to diagnose a problem correctly the first time and to be able to find out why something has failed.

Most common mistakes? Simple: they don’t isolate and apply what they know. They attack a problem in a helter-skelter manner and throw parts at a problem, and they may eventually solve it but do not know what they did to solve it. Taking more time in understanding how something works makes it easier to repair.

Eugene Hornberger, Arcet Equipment Co.
The SkillsUSA Championships Technical Standards contains 126 competencies we expect competitors to have, 80 of which we deem to be essential. Competitors should at least meet the American Welding Society’s entry-level welder requirements.

Common mistakes? Failure to read and understand instructions. Lack of knowledge of welding symbols. Lack of understanding on the use of weld measuring tools. Poor welding skills on aluminum.

Job Interview
Mitchell Slemp, Mid-America Technology Center, Wayne, Okla.
What’s important? Salesmanship: enthusiasm, eye contact and voice volume. The ability to properly complete a job application. Responding to all areas on the application. Spelling and punctuation.

Common mistakes? Not having a thorough understanding of contest rules. Contestants bring only one copy of their résumé or a résumé of more than one page. Not including area codes. Incomplete addresses. Poor penmanship.

Promotional Bulletin Board
Ed Mann, University of Southern Mississippi
Most important? Ability to construct a bulletin board that addresses the criteria in the technical standards. Reading and following directions exactly. Presenting yourself to judges during the interview session. Making a 3- to 5-minute presentation that addresses all the items listed. Responding to questions from the judges with answers that make sense. Assembling the notebook according to the criteria. Common mistakes include not reading the standards and not following the criteria for clothing, measurements and notebook.

Electronic Applications
Don Hatton, Hatton Enterprises
What’s important? The ability to troubleshoot electronic circuits. This requires thorough knowledge of electronics theory and the ability to use test equipment. In what skills are contestants sometimes unprepared? They do not know how to effectively use standard test equipment in diagnosing faulty electronic circuits.

Major Appliance Technology
Richard Ringer, General Electric Co.;
Tony Viera, Amana/Raytheon Appliances
What skills are most important? Reading schematics. Basic knowledge of electricity. Understanding and using meters in troubleshooting. Using torches and brazing. People skills: ability to converse and relate to customers. Using common sense and knowledge of fundamentals to properly diagnose the product failures. Some contestants come unprepared in customer skills, knowledge of circuitry and basic electricity, fundamental diagnostic ability and brazing techniques.

Industrial Motor Control
Bob Baird, Independent Electrical Contractors
The standards for the contest do a reasonably good job of setting forth the technical requirements. Unfortunately, we frequently see a lack of preparation of competitors by advisors who haven’t read or don’t understand the standards. Advisors, talk to past competitors. Realize that individuals working on industrial motor control don’t only work on control logic, but also have to be able to install the equipment and wiring methods for both the power and control. Understand that competitors have to have a code book, and that an individual who has studied residential wiring really doesn’t have enough preparation for motor control.

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SkillsUSA Champions | Winter 2003 | Volume 37, No. 2
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