Kevin Matthies is the only American to date to earn a Precision Machining-Milling medal at the WorldSkills Competition. Now a senior vice president for Spirit AeroSystems, he traces his stratospheric rise back to 1985, when he first competed in a SkillsUSA event.
How much of that experience took him to where he is now? “I would say almost all of it,” Matthies replies. “It’s directly applicable to what I’ve done in my 31-year career in various aerospace activities.”
As a high school student in Sterling Heights, Mich., Matthies joined the organization in the path of his sister, Tammy Brown (a former national officer and now director of SkillsUSA Michigan). His own run for state office was unsuccessful, but he excelled in his first state competition. He came in second and wound up going to the 1985 nationals when the winner couldn’t make the trip. Only a sophomore, he finished in eighth place nationally.
His junior year, it was all systems go, as Matthies won his regional, state and then national events in Precision Machining. “That journey that occurred over about a 15-month period really began to shape who I am,” he says.
Rather than go for another national gold medal in his senior year, Matthies chose to compete in the tryouts for the international competition. He was only 17.
“I started on the milling competition first, and then the next day was going to be lathe,” he says. “It turns out what they had us compete and try out against was a previous year’s international [competition] part. That international part usually takes 24 hours to make. We were given 12.”
Halfway through that first day, one of the trainers told him, “Hey, we think you’ve done really well, but … you’re not going to make the international team.”
As Matthies remembers, “This is in the middle of a competition, about seven or eight hours into it, and I don’t understand what’s happening, right? He’s telling me something. He’s basically ruining my dreams and hopes of what I wanted to do at that point in time in my life.”
“The reason was is that I was actually too young,” Matthies explains. “I would not graduate high school until the summer of 1987, and they wanted to train the team for one full year. So, he wasn’t being mean to me; he was being realistic on what the expectations were.”
As he later describes, “That’s one of those moments in your life when you can decide that you can give up or you can take on the world. For whatever reason, I decided, ‘I’m going to take on the world.’
After thinking about it all night, “I came in the next day determined to show them that they had made a wrong decision,” he adds. “Not only did I finish the entire 24 hours on the parts, I finished it in such a way that they had to fly in two people from California to make a decision on whether or not they were going to add me to the team or not. I ended up making the milling team.”
‘I thought my dreams were shot’
After six months of preparation, Matthies and the rest of the U.S. team traveled to Sydney, Australia, in 1988 for the three-day international competition.
“First day went pretty good,” he begins. “I was so stressed out, I cramped up. I had all kinds of physical problems with my body, much like an athlete might. I got a 15-minute break. They gave me some salt tablets, made me drink some water, and I went back to work. But it was interesting, the way stress plays on your body.
“Around the second day, I made what I thought was going to be a fatal mistake. I had squared off my part and got it to the size I wanted, and I left no material on that part.” But then after “an extremely aggressive roughing operation” — a machining term, he explains — “I had essentially bent or warped my part. And again, I thought my dreams were shot.”
That night, Matthies and three other U.S. competitors “devised a scheme for me to fix that part,” he says. “And luckily the next morning, within about 10 minutes, I actually had recovered the part and fixed it in such a state that I could actually submit it and have the right quality that I needed.” In the end, his quick thinking was enough to, as he says, make him “the only American ever to this date to hold a medal in Precision Machining-Milling at the international competition.”
Of the overall experience, Matthies says “it was probably the single most important defining moment in my life, short of my marriage and the birth of my son. But it really defined and set the course for me and my ability to fundamentally do just about anything I ever really wanted to do. It empowered me. It provided me confidence beyond, probably, my wildest imagination.”
‘A student is fundamentally changed’
Matthies went on to earn degrees in computer science from California State University and his master’s in systems engineering from the University of Arizona. He has since worked in executive positions for Raytheon Missile Systems, Hughes Aircraft Co. and General Dynamics. His roles span program management, chief engineer, software engineering leadership and technical leadership on several proprietary programs.
In 2013, after a 26-year career at Raytheon, he joined Spirit AeroSystems and is now the senior vice president of its Global Fabrication business. The 16,000-employee company generated $7 billion in sales in 2017. Matthies has managed Airbus and 787 programs in places ranging from his home base in Wichita, Kan., to Subang, Malaysia.
“We deliver four Boeing aircraft shipsets and three Airbus aircraft shipsets every day from our facilities,” he says. “It takes quite a bit of skill to be able to produce them at the rates that we need and also with the quality that we need, and we’re always looking for highly talented people. SkillsUSA provides us with the unique opportunity to tap into that very early in their career.”
As an active supporter of SkillsUSA, Matthies keynoted at the Michigan state conference. Later, during the National Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville, Ky., he shared his WorldSkills experience with potential sponsors.
“A student is fundamentally changed by having this experience,” he says. “He or she may come in — not all of them, but some of them — a little quiet and tentative. But when they leave this two-day experience or multiday experience, they are forever changed. No matter whether they win or lose, they probably see the world radically differently than they did before they actually tried to compete against others.”
Before his event, Matthies was trained by industry experts as well as former student competitors. They “were instrumental in preparing me for WorldSkills,” he notes. “Not only did I learn the day-to-day in and outs of how we in America approach certain sets of skills, but they were also able to tell me how a competitor — from Korea or Taiwan, Japan, Austria, Germany — how they may have approached that problem.
“And that gave me a lot of ability as I looked at the part the very first time,” Matthies adds. “When I sat down with 24 hours of competition ahead of me, there was a significant amount of experience, albeit virtual, about how others might have approached a particular problem. And being able to leverage that was really key for me. It really was.”
The other competitors who medaled in 1988 were from Japan and Taiwan, he says. “I spend a lot of time now traveling the world to various locations that we use to support our business. It happens to be Japan, Taiwan, Korea, other areas. And I see the essence of what I saw 31 years ago in their cultures, their behaviors and who they are, and how they train even today.
“And I’m sure if I went to WorldSkills, this upcoming one in Kazan, you’d probably see the essence of that still.”