Students Compete in Battle of Trades

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Dakota Harris tried to block out the chaos surrounding him, a dozen hammers and saws flying all over the place, and focus on his work.

Confined to a small 10-foot-by-10-foot work space, the Alexander High School senior at Tri-County Career Center had four hours to build a miniature house.

Finally the bell sounded around noon on Saturday. Harris was a last-minute entry for SkillsUSA in Nelsonville, stepping in for another Tri-County student for the Construction Trades competition.

Given all the cacophony and pressure, what followed is a testament to high expectations needed for SkillsUSA — when it was over, all Harris could think about were the two small things he thought he had messed up.

Thirteen schools gathered in Nelsonville for the annual SkillsUSA, where more than 300 students competed in 27 different events. The day featured a mix between hands-on competitions like Harris’ and others that were more academic.

No matter the event, students from throughout SkillsUSA’s Southeast Ohio region had a chance to compete in whatever specialty they studied back at their home technical schools. The afternoon pitted aspiring cosmetologists against one another, criminal justice students investigating a mock crime scene and two-dozen other trades battling it out for a top-three finish and a trip to the state competition.

Alex Burcher, a student ambassador for Tri-County, could be seen helping visitors and students find their correct event locations. Burcher is a senior Nelsonville-York Buckeye who now attends Tri-County full time in the Office Professional Lab.

He said the trade school is an opportunity to have real work experience before graduation; already he has a Microsoft Office certificate and said he is close to achieving one for payroll administration.

As for other students gaining hands-on experience, Burcher pointed to the SkillsUSA Collision Repair Tech event.

The first stage is dent repair. David Romine, competing for the C-TEC school in Newark, finished his piece early and drew experience from a side job with an automotive shop in Newark. He is working toward an Automotive Service Excellence certification at C-TEC.

Many students like Romine and Burcher have jobs in their field alongside going to school, giving them even more experience and business contacts for when they graduate. Romine’s business works primarily on racing cars, and winter is a busy time of year as racers get their cars fixed for the upcoming summer season.

In a nearby room is the refinishing competition, where students are given gold paint to spray on car parts. Gold paint is tricky, spectators note, because the color can easily blacken if the handler sprays too closely or for too long. The goal is to avoid blotches like “fisheyes,” which are the little dots that can show up after a bad paint job.

Outside the cafeteria, a few students from Jefferson County near Steubenville were unwinding after competing in the Health Knowledge Bowl. This contest featured choice health trivia as well as questions on ethics and legal issues surrounding health professions.

Juniors Amber Steigerwald of Indian Creek High School and Kylee Bork of Buckeye Local High School think they did well. Were the questions hard?

“If you didn’t study,” they offered.

Tri-County Assistant Principal Kelly Leffler, also a SkillsUSA contest coordinator, said the day was hectic but ran fairly smoothly. The regional competition rotates to different schools on a two-year basis, meaning Nelsonville will host next year’s event as well. Several students from Tri-County have gone on to succeed at the state and national levels, Leffler said, in events like computer maintenance and photography.

Back in the construction room, judges paced from one makeshift, wooden “house” to another and scribbled in notepads. Not only did competitors have a time limit, they were only given a certain amount of wood to work with.

There is little room for error, so they had to make best use of their own tools and creativity. They all worked from the same design, but had to decide how best to reach the final product.

At Tri-County and dozens of trade schools around the state, where students graduate with more than enough tools to succeed in life, the abilities to solve challenges and learn from mistakes are the ultimate lessons.

It’s like Tri-County’s junior carpentry instructor Tim Bail said afterward about the limited amount of wood — “If you make a cut, you gotta find a way to get by.”