For students in high-skill career pathways, winning an invitation to the SkillsUSA national competition is one of the biggest honors in their field. Not only does the annual competition give students an opportunity to showcase their talent in different trades but it also demonstrates what the future of Career Technical Education (CTE) can be: a coordinated, cross-sector effort to put learner success first.
This year’s SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Louisville, Kentucky — the 52nd annual competition — featured more than 6,000 competitors, 4,000 teachers and advisers, and 600 national industry leaders from across the United States. In two days of fierce competition, students took to the exposition floor to demonstrate their mastery in a variety of skilled trades: Automated Manufacturing Technology, Culinary Arts, Health Occupations, Mechatronics, Web Design and Welding, to name a few.
What stood out throughout the conference was not only the passion from competitors and their advisers, but also the relationships that students, educators and conference organizers had with industry leaders in each field. Business and industry representatives were highly engaged, contributing generous prize packages for winners in each category, partnering with SkillsUSA National to align competition criteria to industry standards, and providing judges for each competition. Further, many industry leaders could be seen on the exposition floor throughout the week, observing competitions and scoping out future hires.
While students demonstrated their skills on the competition floor, SkillsUSA allowed CTE thought leaders to demonstrate their own wins through SkillsUSA University sessions. In one such session, Dan Belcher of the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) laid out a 12-step plan for facilitating cross-sector collaboration, informed by his experience in the construction industry. He suggested that organizations can start by identifying their needs: the specific skills and knowledge they want to teach their students. This will prepare them to discuss and maximize areas of collaboration with industry partners. On the industry side, organizations should evaluate the resources — equipment, mentorship, strategic guidance, etc. — that they are willing to bring to the table. Such cross-sector collaboration will help streamline pathways from education to career and ensure future success for CTE students. Other sessions included discussions on engaging nontraditional students, engaging the community, and adapting to new assessments.
Advance CTE’s updated Vision, Putting Learner Success First: A Shared Vision for the Future of CTE, describes a future in which CTE programs are held to the highest standards of excellence and all systems work together to support learner success. The SkillsUSA conference provides an encouraging snapshot of what this world will look like, with industry experts and educators alike working together to prepare students for their futures. The task remains to take this successful model and apply it nationwide so that all students can access the opportunity that CTE provides.
Austin Estes, Policy Associate