High-school and post-secondary students race against the clock to compete in four wiring contests at the SkillsUSA Championships

Dressed in a tan uniform and a blue hardhat, a young electrical student worked on a residential electrical problem. While he raced against the clock, he had to also use his material wisely, interpret symbols on a blueprint, and closely follow the requirements of the National Electrical Code.

Kevin Bade, a post-secondary student at Linn State Technical College in Linn, Mo., won a bronze medal in the Residential Wiring competition at the 39th annual SkillsUSA Championships held recently in Kansas City, Mo. After competing at the local and state level, he took a written test, performed a conduit bending exercise, and interviewed with the judges. He also had to install an electrical panel and box to serve three lights, three single-pole switches, and a couple of receptacles.

“You had barely enough wire to get the job done,” says Bade, a second-year student who plans to start his own electrical contracting firm someday. “You also had to watch your time because it's a fast competition. The more rushed you are, the more mistakes you can make.”

Bade was one of 23 post-secondary and 43 high school students who competed in the Residential Wiring competition in late June (Photo 1 above). More than 4,000 students participated in 75 hands-on skill and leadership contests ranging from carpentry to the culinary arts. The 2003 competition featured four wiring contests including Residential Wiring, Industrial Motor Controls, TeamWorks, and Telecommunications Cabling.

Electrical associations, manufacturers, educators, and contractors demonstrated their emphasis on workforce development by volunteering to set up and administer skills contests for about 200 students enrolled in secondary or post-secondary electrical or voice/data/video training programs. Volunteers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) donated their time and electrical expertise to wire the convention center prior to the SkillsUSA Championships. The IBEW also joined forces with representatives from the National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), Independent Electrical Contractors (IEC), and Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) to coordinate the electrical contests.

Wayne J. Griffin Electric, a Holliston, Mass.-based electrical contractor, sent many of its full-time employees to judge the Residential Wiring competition. The firm has been a long-time supporter of vo-tech education and SkillsUSA.

“These competitions allow us to give back to the trade and recruit some of the best students in the industry,” says President Wayne J. Griffin.

Retired electricians, like Edward Kelly, a retired New Hampshire electrical instructor, also helped with the event. The 25-year teaching veteran says that the caliber of the students and the instructors improves every year. He's been involved with SkillsUSA, previously the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA), for 22 years and plans to continue judging the contests for years to come.

“Once you get it into your blood, it never leaves,” he says. “The kids keep you young. Here I am 66 years old and sometimes I feel like I'm one of them.”

Many of the other retired volunteers feel the same way about their involvement. Every year, a group of retired IBEW electricians meet at the local union hall and take a bus to H. Roe Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City, Mo. After the time limit passes for the contest, the judges stroll down the aisles to inspect the students' handiwork.

SkillsUSA Wiring Competitions.

Residential Wiring

The Residential Wiring competition, which is the longest running electrical contest at the SkillsUSA Championships, will have a new twist next year. A datacom cabling exercise will be included in the hands-on part of the competition to give the students experience with Cat. 5 cable, which is becoming increasingly common in homes.

Telecommunications Cabling.

To test students' datacom wiring skills, SkillsUSA also added a Telecommunications Cabling contest to the 2003 competition. Students pulled and mounted cable, constructed wiring closets, installed jacks, and tested cables. The medalists for this new contest along with other electrical categories are listed in the Sidebar below.

TeamWorks. Future electricians had the opportunity to show off their wiring skills in the TeamWorks competition. Each team, which consisted of an electrician, plumber, carpenter, and a mason, had two days to construct a one-room “house” on individual wood platforms. The electrical students nailed up the boxes, set the electrical panel, hooked up the appliances, and installed an outside light. The teams were judged on their ability to work together, the cleanliness of their jobsite, timeliness in completing the project, and proper ordering of equipment. At the end of the competition, three rows of identical houses lined the floor at the auditorium (Photo 3). Robert Piper, vice president of corporate operations for Arvada, Colo.-based Piper Electric Co. and judge for the TeamWorks competition, says that each team member worked from a set of plans to construct the final product.

“To me, this is what they run into in the real world when they're out on a job,” he says. “To put a job together, they have to be able to communicate with each other and work together as a team.”

Industrial Motor Controls. A team of IEC and ABC contractors and representatives of IBEW and NJATC worked together to put together a real world challenge for the Industrial Motor Controls competition (Photo 4). The 39 contestants had to take a written description of a wiring problem from a plastic moulding plant, draw the circuit diagram, and then take a corrected drawing and a pile of parts and install the circuit on a plywood backboard according to all applicable codes and standards.

“We're really proud of our competitors,” says Bob Baird, vice president of apprenticeship and training, standards and safety for the IEC and chairman of the competition. “The quality of students in the competition has come a long way over the years. I'm sure that our contractors would be happy to have any of these people on their team.”

By being involved in SkillsUSA, Baird says he and the other volunteers can help influence the instructors to raise their level of training, resulting in better trained students to come out of the secondary and post-secondary schools.

Many of the electrical instructors come to the SkillsUSA Championships to learn new techniques that they can take back to their schools. Terry Akins, an instructor for the IBEW/NECA Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee in Kansas City, Mo., says the entire show was an inspiration to him as an educator. Kelly, a former teacher at Dover High School in Dover, N.H., agrees.

“I find that the kids who make it to this level are the best kids in the world as far as work ethics and attitudes,” he says. “They care all the way through high school and post-secondary and have the knowledge, drive, and self-discipline to succeed.”





Sidebar: 2003 SkillsUSA Medalists

RESIDENTIAL WIRING (SECONDARY)
GOLD
Jared Garber, Miami Valley CTC, Clayton, Ohio
SILVER
Dustin Watkins, Etowah County Area Vocational Center, Attalla, Ala.
BRONZE
Eric Simon, North High School, Evansville, Ind.

RESIDENTIAL WIRING (POST-SECONDARY)
GOLD
Tylor Plummer, North Central Kansas Tech College, Beloit, Kan.
SILVER
Gary Wilkerson, Elizabethtown Technical College, Elizabethtown, Ky.
BRONZE
Kevin Bade, Linn State Tech College, Linn, Mo.

INDUSTRIAL MOTOR CONTROL (SECONDARY)
GOLD
Matthew Jones, Northeast Technology Center, Afton, Okla.
SILVER
Brian Grimm, Buckeye Career Center, New Philadelphia, Ohio
BRONZE
Thomas McCarter, Center of Applied Tech-South, Edgewater, Md.

INDUSTRIAL MOTOR CONTROL (POST-SECONDARY)
GOLD
Wayne Hambrick, Ayers State Technical College, Anniston, Ala.
SILVER
Nathan Burdett, Utah Valley State College, Orem, Utah
BRONZE
Ronan Ivins, Albuquerque Tech Vocational, Albuquerque, N.M.

TEAMWORKS (SECONDARY)
GOLD
Jefferson Scranton High School, Jefferson, Iowa
SILVER
Bay Arenac Career Center, Bay City, Mich.
BRONZE
Southeastern Career Center, Versailles, Ind.

TEAMWORKS (POST-SECONDARY)
GOLD
Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City
SILVER
Gloucester County Institute of Technology, Sewell, N.J.
BRONZE
Iowa Central Community College, Fort Dodge, Iowa

TELECOMMUNICATIONS CABLING (SECONDARY)
GOLD
Mark Morris, Cumberland County Tech, Bridgeton, N.J.
SILVER
Justin Armstrong, Mill Creek Center, Olathe, Kan.
BRONZE
Jacob Page, Eastside Technical Center, Lexington, Ky.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS CABLING (POST-SECONDARY)
GOLD
John Given, East Central Technical College, Fitzgerald, Ga.
SILVER
Chris Thompson, Canadian Valley Tech Center, El Reno, Okla.
BRONZE
Adam Lamphier, Iowa Central Community College, Fort Dodge, Iowa





Sidebar:Trends in Technical Education

The slowing economy has forced many vo-tech schools to cut programs and trim budgets due to the expense of technical education. Unlike traditional lecture classrooms, a hands-on technical lab requires costly materials and equipment to properly train its students.

“If you're teaching a history class, you can have quite a few students in a room and all you need is an overhead projector or a white board,” says Edward Nelson, assistant training director for the St. Paul Area Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee in St. Paul, Minn. “If you're a machinist and you're setting up a machine lab, each machine may cost $700,000, and you may need five of them. When budgets get cut, it's much easier to keep the lecture rooms open and cut the technical programs.”

One training center, however, is actually expanding its facility. The Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center in Kansas City, Mo., has recently added a BICSI lab, a 10-station welding lab, a motor control lab, a computer lab, some new classrooms, and a multi-purpose room to house the conduit bending and threading equipment.

The training center is also following a nationwide trend by offering college credit for electrical apprenticeships. Apprentices can earn 47 credit hours during their 5-year apprenticeship. By taking an additional 15 or 17 hours of instruction, they can graduate from a local community college with an associate's degree in applied science, inside wiring, or construction technology. Terry Akins, instructor with the Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee, says he's working with a community college to offer his students three hours of credit for his welding class. He's also recruiting local professors to come on-site and teach core classes like physics or labor history. Whether or not the electrical students have a college degree, however, they'll most likely face a challenging job market. Nelson says Minnesota electrical students need to go through a 2-year technical college to get an interview with the apprenticeship program. However, once they graduate, many can't find work.

“It makes it really hard on people who pay tuition for two years and then have to wait six months or a year to get hired,” says Nelson, who started as a student advisor and now serves on the SkillsUSA education committee. “Three years ago, you couldn't find enough people to take in apprentices. This winter we had 33% unemployment in our apprenticeship program.”

Nelson says Minnesota's electrical construction market has experienced a dramatic slowdown. More than 200 journeymen were unemployed in the middle of the summer. The students who compete at SkillsUSA championships, however, have a competitive edge in the job market, Nelson says.

“The fact that they've gotten to this level shows that they're motivated and self-starters,” he says. “Everyone wants to hire people like them.”