In this industry, it is easy for contractors to have some doubt about the younger generations. Contractors need up-and-coming technicians who are qualified. Period. Sure, you can pick up a guy off the street, train him to do what you want, and pray that he has the people skills to uphold your reputation, but finding excellent employees seems to get harder and harder.

Well, here is a glimmer of hope. A little event called SkillsUSA-VICA reminds us that the industry’s next generation is in good hands. In fact, it also shows that a large portion of the industry is extremely proactive when it comes to supporting young people in the trades.

The Must-See Event

If you happened to attend this year’s Air-Conditioning, Heating, Refrigerating Exposition (AHR Expo) in Chicago, you may have seen the SkillsUSA-VICA booth.

The booth was equipped with several working systems, including a packaged refrigeration system, central air conditioning unit, ice machine, large residential refrigerator, R-410A heat pump, and gas furnace.

During the first day of the expo, SkillsUSA held its Qualifying Competition to determine which student would represent HVACR at the World Skills Competition (WSC) in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

If you’re not familiar with Skills-USA/VICA, look them up. Find out if there is a SkillsUSA chapter in your area. VICA stands for Vocational Industrial Clubs of America. One way to describe SkillsUSA would be to look at it as an after-school club. Think the Boy Scouts or 4-H. But SkillsUSA guides its student members through a chosen career path. VICA offers a number of vocational areas to get involved in, including culinary arts, carpentry, and, of course, HVACR.

SkillsUSA has chapters for both secondary and post-secondary students. There are also local, state, and national chapters. Students have the opportunity to compete in contests at each of these levels. Winners of the local contest move on to the state championship. Winners at the state level then move on to the yearly national competition held in Kansas City.

At the 2003 AHR Expo, the four students with the highest scores from the 2001 and 2002 national championships squared off to determine who would travel overseas to compete for the international title.

The four students competed by rotating from one piece of equipment to the next. Each piece of equipment had some kind of malfunction. It was the responsibility of each contestant to use his troubleshooting skills to determine the system’s difficulty. Judges watched as each student diagnosed the problem, paying close attention to each student’s method of troubleshooting. This wasn’t a contest to see who could troubleshoot the fastest, but with the best accuracy. After determining the system failure, the student moved on to the next piece of equipment.

In the second phase of the competition, the judges interviewed each competitor.

According to SkillsUSA, the competition was located in a high-traffic area at the expo. This allowed many individuals to see SkillsUSA, as well as the four students showing off their technical ability.

Top Students

This year’s competitors were Tim Hollifield, Nicholas Keziah, Nicholas Petrushonis, and Craig Dort.

Hollifield came in first place in the secondary education category during the 2001 SkillsUSA competition. He is from Muskogee, Okla., and is a graduate of Indian Capital Vo Tech School. David Marby was Hollifield’s instructor at Indian Capital. Currently, Hollifield works as a service technician at Airco Service in Tulsa.

Keziah is from Mooresville, N.C., where he is a senior at Mooresville Senior High School. During the 2002 SkillsUSA Championship, Keziah placed first in the secondary category. His instructor was Gary Ramsey of N.F. Woods Technical Center. According to SkillsUSA, Keziah is interested in pursuing a career in commercial refrigeration.

Petrushonis won second place when he competed in the 2002 national championship. He is from Ansonia, Conn., and is currently a mechanical engineering major at the University of New Haven. Petrushonis’ instructor was Michael Varonka from Emmet O’Brien RVTS. Petrushonis is thinking about a career in controls after college.

Dort, who was chosen to represent the U.S. at the international competition, is a graduate of Ozarks Technical Community College in Missouri. Dort placed first in the SkillsUSA National Championship when he competed in the secondary education category. He currently works for Howell Commercial Refrigeration in Springfield. Dave Richards, HRA instructor at Ozarks Technical Community College, worked as Dort’s mentor and prepared him for the contest.

A Bright Future

These four students are a sure sign that young people are still interested in the trade, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. The SkillsUSA event attracted a number of young people from vocational programs within the city of Chicago and as far away as Seattle.

The students also got some hands-on instruction at the expo. Representatives from the manufacturers who donated equipment for the event were on hand to give the students technical tips. According to the Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration Institute (ARI), one of the many supporters of SkillsUSA, over 2,000 students attended the show. Six schools with a total of 89 students sat in on the free training seminars.

Industry Support Is Essential

Several manufacturers and industry associations pitched in to donate equipment and judge the competition. Others donated prizes and helped out financially to make sure the event ran without a hitch.

Richards summed it up this way. “This is an invaluable learning experience for Craig and the other competitors,” he said. “It’s very important that the industry continues to support competitions such as this so the students can understand the commitment they are making will be recognized and rewarded. Craig is a fine example of what can come out of programs such as this. I’m very proud to be his mentor.”

The qualified individuals are out there, some are just waiting for the guidance and the opportunities. Organizations like SkillsUSA need support in order to make sure that young people can rise to the level of the four competitors at this year’s AHR Expo.

According to SkillsUSA, the organization has support from over 1,000 corporations, businesses, trade associations, and labor unions at the national level. Participation at the state and local level varies. Find out if your area has a SkillsUSA chapter. They might need your help. In the future, they might be able to return the favor.

James J. Siegel is training & education editor. He can be reached at 248-244-1731; 248-362-0317 (fax);

Publication date: 03/17/2003