Anthony Cofield is a myth-breaker. Has been since the ninth grade.
That’s when he abandoned the advanced honors path he was traveling in favor of Calhoun County Technical Center in Jacksonville, Ala.
He remembers his mother wasn’t exactly sold on the idea. “She said, ‘Oh, you don’t need to go to technical school, it’s not for you.’ ”
His classmates were skeptical. “All my friends at school were like, ‘You’re crazy, you’re going to be a nobody out there. That’s where the bad kids go.’ ”
Cofield’s father, however, supported the decision. He’d attended the same technical school when he was a student and, as a welding competitor, won the first medal ever given by the school’s SkillsUSA (then VICA) chapter. Later, with his son, he’d patented inventions such as a weight containment system called a “barbell rack” and low-level ramps that enable handicapped accessibility to buses.
Still, there was something more that drew the younger Cofield to the brink of such a decision.
“Ever since I was a little boy,” he recalls, “I always drew houses, and I never knew why. I always loved things about architecture.” That love led him and his parents to the classroom of Eddie Johns, a drafting instructor at the technical center.
Johns discussed the nature of his program and the benefits Cofield could gain from it. But the real selling point was the success rate of Johns’ students.
“Everybody in his class for the last four years had received a scholarship to some college in the drafting field,” Cofield says. “So that’s when it really changed my mind.”
Upon entering Johns’ drafting class, Cofield soon realized that he was also being drafted into SkillsUSA, like it or not. He liked it.
“Before I joined SkillsUSA, I was your typical high-school student,” he recollects. “I went to school, I went home, I went fishing. That was about it. SkillsUSA made me appreciate the value of the work force so much more.”
Cofield’s growing self-confidence and leadership skills helped him agree to Johns’ suggestion to run for SkillsUSA district office. He didn’t think much of his chances, but by the time he’d won district office, then state office, then national office in 1999, Cofield felt ready for anything.
Meanwhile, Johns was preparing to start his own drafting business, but he lacked a partner.
“He said, ‘I’m going to open the door to you first,’ ” Cofield remembers. “He said, ‘Would you be willing to take 50 percent of the profits and draw with me?’ So we started our business, Johns Residential Design, in 1997, and we do small residential house plans for subdivisions and banks and things like that.”
While many of his fellow students were begrudgingly working minimum-wage jobs, Cofield was already on his way to gaining real-world work experience in a field that he loved.
“When we opened our business,” Cofield says, “we grossed over $60,000 that first year. So, as a junior in high school, I made right at $33,000 that year.”
Cofield graduated with a 4.0 grade point average and received full scholarship offers to all but one of the 12 colleges he applied for. Today, he attends the University of Alabama, majoring in career and technical education with a minor in engineering and graphic design. He’s also parlayed his SkillsUSA and early work experience into his current position with Mims Engineering, a local firm.
To say Cofield made a good first impression would be an understatement. “When a 19-year-old kid walks into an engineering firm and says, ‘Here’s my portfolio, here are the things I’ve worked on and the projects that I’ve done,’ it looks really good,” he points out. “My company didn’t know what SkillsUSA was until I started working there, but now they do. And next year, we’re hoping to be a sponsor of our state drafting contest.”
He volunteers his time for SkillsUSA events and training programs — and talks to parents whose children may be facing the decision he once faced. “I always try to leave them with my story,” he says, “because it’s always better to see an example. If you can put a face with something, it always helps.”
Oh, and even his mom has come around. More than come around, in fact.
“She thanks God every day that I took that step in a direction she didn’t want me to go in,” Cofield says. “And she’ll tell you she is 100 percent behind this program every day of the week, and she would do anything for it and support me in anything in it because of what it’s done for me.”
Cofield is a myth-breaker, but he says he looks forward to the day when there are no more myths about technical education left to break. “I don’t regret any decisions I’ve made as far as [SkillsUSA] is concerned one bit, and I will support anybody who wants to go to technical school or join a SkillsUSA chapter. I believe they say, ‘Life’s a game and we’re all players,’ but I’d say, ‘Life’s a game and SkillsUSA members are winning it.’ ”