Erica and Robert Rutter

Erica and Robert Rutter met, got married and had a son. Their American dream quickly centered on making a better life for Emmett, now 3.

When they met, Robert was a busy automotive technician, making good commissions. Then came an economic downturn. “I loved it for the first couple years, but when there was no work, I wasn’t getting paid,” he recalls.

Erica had left work at a metal die-casting company after Emmett was born. When he grew a little older and less dependant, she considered going back to school. At that point, the couple faced the question, “Do we struggle and [barely] survive, or do we struggle and go back to school?”

Career and technical education provided vital answers. Robert did some research and saw the need for diesel equipment technicians.

“We decided that not going to school and trying to find a job to make enough money to support a family was extremely hard,” Erica explains. “So, we figured we’d buckle down on finances and both go to school so we could both get decent jobs to support our family.”

Technical school, they determined, would get them in the workforce faster and with lower tuition expenses. While on a waiting list for the diesel program at Madison (Wis.) Area Technical College, Robert suggested Erica look at automobile collision and refinishing. Having worked in metals, Erica — who sees herself one day working as an insurance adjuster — took her husband’s suggestion. A week before her classes started, a spot opened for Robert.

When they’re not in school, Robert works as a diesel technician for a landscaping company, and Erica takes care of Emmett at home.

Asked about maintaining their busy schedule, Erica alludes to energy drinks. They live nearly an hour and a half from school and see a lot of late nights and early mornings.

“Our son basically is what keeps us going,” she adds. “We’re trying to do good by him. It’s hard to explain. We’re doing this not only for ourselves but for him as well, so we can make sure he has a bright future.

“[Tech school] gives us our associates’ and our certificates that we need to go into the field. And, after being in the field for however long we want, if we want to continue on, bump up our associate’s to bachelor’s, then we could probably just go back at that time.”

Educational plans in place, standout résumés became the couple’s next goal. Enter SkillsUSA. Robert joined, then convinced Erica to do the same. Both made it to their state competition. Then, just before their contests, Tom Wozniak, SkillsUSA Wisconsin’s college/postsecondary director, talked to them about running for state office. They both decided to give it a try.

“The day before the competition,” Robert remembers, “we had that interview, and then two days later, at closing ceremonies for the state competition, we were both elected state officers. I guess I couldn’t have really asked for anything better.”

He was elected state parliamentarian; Erica, historian. In their competitions, Robert took third and she placed sixth, pretty good for first-year students.

“SkillsUSA has definitely made me more motivated,” Robert now says. “It’s made me more motivated in the classroom. It’s made me more motivated at work. Just being a part of SkillsUSA has made me just be more motivated everywhere.”

“It’s been a little bit of a struggle, but we’re giving it our all,” Erica points out. “To me, I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t join.”