Peter Powell

I’m starting to run out of fingers and toes to count up all the years that I have been attending the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference each summer in Kansas City, Mo. I remember when SkillsUSA used to be VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America), which I’m suspecting most of the current contestants don’t know about, seeing how the name change took place in 1999 when some of them were barely in kindergarten.

For the first few years I simply attended and watched as each year more than 50 winners of state and regional competitions went after gold, silver and bronze medals on a national stage by spending an entire day being tested in brazing, refrigeration component service, air measurement and troubleshooting, refrigerant recovery, and electrical troubleshooting among others. They also took a written exam. I, in turn, did a story each year focusing on the HVACR competition as well as the conference itself.

Then, for some crazy reason, in 2000 I was asked to be a judge, in addition to doing a story on the event. I survived that first try at judging and returned next year to do so again … and the next year after that … and the next year after that.

I know I missed one a few years ago, so with fingers and toes easily accessible I calculate that I have served as a judge 11 times including the most recent competition this past June.

Back in 2001, I wrote a column about this which began, “If you think there is a shortage of qualified techs in the industry, look who they had to call upon to help out in the judging in the HVACR sector.”

That was a bit tongue-in-cheek, because for the many years I served as a judge in the ice machine servicing aspect of the competition, we also had a lead judge from the manufacturer supplying the equipment who, before the contest, reviewed what he was looking for in terms of each contestant and allowed the other judges to shadow him for the first couple of contestants.

The ice machine aspect of the competition has not been present for the past few years, so I’ve moved over to the refrigerant recovery competition - again with a more qualified judge going over criteria, and letting me shadow him for a bit.

Here are some thoughts as I work my way well into double digit years at SkillsUSA:

It is a great learning experience for me as well as the contestants. I don’t work on HVACR equipment on a daily basis, so while I understand the technology, it is good to see everything up close when it is being worked on.

SkillsUSA is in many ways a measurement of where the industry stands in its education of those interested in entering the industry. Even though those reaching this national competition have succeeded at the local, regional, and state level, test scores are across the board. Some contestants showed little understanding of what the industry considers the basics, while others sailed through the tasks. Results can help schools look at areas for which they should be focusing more attention.

At the same time, schools cannot be expected to provide all the training needed to be successful in the industry. I found out after a competition a few years ago that one of the contestants I judged had actually been working with his father for a number of years. I seem to recall he scored very well in the area I was judging. He didn’t have all the textbook answers, but he sure knew how to use the tools, and he knew what he was looking for in terms of readouts and measurements.

By far the most challenging part of the competition was being located right next to the Culinary Arts contest where chefs of the future were creating mouth-watering foods. The years in which breads were being baked sent off aromas to die for. We, next door, had to settle for a boxed lunch of a cold sandwich, chips, and an orange shipped in from a bulk caterer. One of the HVACR coordinators of the event describes it, tongue in cheek, as the “very best sack lunch that SkillsUSA can buy.” But thankfully, being in Kansas City means supper afterwards at one of those great rib restaurants with options in barbeque sauces for which KC is famous.

Publication date:08/01/2011