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SkillsUSA sees increase in older competitors

Scattered among the bright-eyed youth you would expect to find at the SkillsUSA national championships this week are some crow’s feet, bald patches, and even a beer gut or two.

SkillsUSA is a program that helps students learn technical and vocational job skills.

About 5,500 participants are swarming around downtown Kansas City this week, competing in contests to show off their skills. Joining them are 8,500 judges, advisers and industry representatives searching for job candidates.

Almost all the competitors are still in high school. But conference organizers say the last few years have brought a noticeable increase in older participants.

With rounds of layoffs, technological advancements and the development of new industries, the older participants have gone back to school to make themselves more hirable — or to get hired at all.

Two years ago, 51-year-old John Muncy was laid off. He used to rebuild PC boards for arcade pieces, but home computers and video game systems eventually made the games — and his job — obsolete.

The New Haven, Ky., resident decided to go back to school at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College to study industrial electricity. He plans on starting at Western Kentucky University next spring to get his bachelor’s in technology management.

On Wednesday, he competed at SkillsUSA in mechatronics. He said he chose the field, which involves programming robots in automated factories, because he thinks it has staying power.

“I wanted something that was going to keep up with technology,” he said. “Even though this is more advanced than what I did, I still have some idea of what I’m doing.”

Last year, Michael Dunn was in a similar situation. The 62-year-old American Airlines airplane mechanic had to choose to move or be laid off.

He didn’t want to move from Edwardsville, so he took early retirement. After struggling to fix a clothes dryer, he decided to go to the Technical Education Center in Kansas City, Kan.

He said he picked an industry that’s hiring — major appliance technology.

Dunn is excited to compete at the national level and said it wasn’t too difficult to shift to another technical field.

“I’ve worked outside for 30 years. Sitting at a desk — I’d rather not,” he said.

“In the future, I’ll probably go back to work. It depends if anybody wants to hire an old person, but I’ll be looking.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in the first quarter of this year, 19 percent of people who lost their jobs in mass layoffs were 55 or older. In the first quarter of 2001, that figure was 12 percent.

The average age of postsecondary career and technical students is higher than one might think. In 2007-2008 it was 28, the National Center for Education Statistics reported.

At the SkillsUSA conference there is no age restriction.

This is the 18th year Kansas City has played host to the conference, which is estimated to bring a $15 million economic impact.

But because of the growing number of participants and limited space, SkillsUSA will move the championships to Louisville, Ky., in 2014 when its contract with Kansas City expires.

The contests are being held at Bartle Hall, Kemper Arena, Municipal Auditorium and the Marriot, Phillips and Crowne Plaza hotels. The participants compete in 94 categories, everything from animation to welding. They represent all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam.

David Lanman, a criminal justice teacher at Lakeview Centennial High School in Garland, Texas, accompanied nine of his students to the conference. This is the sixth year he’s come to nationals; he competed as a high school student in 1985. The 44-year-old has noticed more older participants.“I’ve mistaken a few of the competitors for advisers,” he said.

Michael Whited, 43, is competing in prepared speech. He went back to study computer networking at Metropolitan Community Colleges.

The Kansas City resident said he started school after being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1990 but dropped out after two semesters.

“I thought I had better opportunities than going to school. That was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.”

Thomas Holdsworth, an associate executive director of SkillsUSA, said the organization had a decision to make before the first national championships in 1967 — whether to judge students using industry or educational standards.

“Educators are wonderful,” he said, “but we have the industry set standards” because the students have to meet those to get jobs.

Having a university education no longer makes someone part of an exclusive club. When it comes to people enrolling in technical schools, he said, one of the fastest growing groups is those with four-year degrees.

“Now employers are saying, ‘Yeah (you have a degree), but what can you do?’ ” he said. “They’ve got the education; now they need the skills.”

Mark Majewski, whose passion is cooking, is learning young. The 17-year-old student at the Broadmoor Technical Center in Overland Park is competing in culinary arts after finishing second in entrepreneurship last year.

Majewski, a Lenexa resident, said his competition was a little bit like “Top Chef,” with contestants preparing a four-course meal from scratch. They are evaluated on taste and technique. The top prize is a full scholarship to some of the best culinary schools in the country, including The Culinary Institute of America and Johnson & Wales University.

“Since I was in fourth grade I told myself I wanted to be a chef. I wasn’t into sports or computers or cars. I loved cooking,” Majewski said. “I’m not a very creative person, but when you put food in front of me I can do anything.”

Majewski said his instructor at Broadmoor, Robert Brassard, elevated his skills from rock bottom.

Holdsworth said career education instructors are often more like mentors. And he said the atmosphere at nationals can be heartwarming as industry competitors come together.

Many of the contest judges are leaders in their industries and take off from work to make it to the championships. Holdsworth said executives and workers often come back because they are concerned about who will carry on in their fields.

Raechel Winchell and Erica DeMarchi both recently graduated high school in Texarkana, Ark., and are competing as a team in television production.

Winchell, 18, said all the competitors got their task Wednesday morning — to promote the revival of downtown Kansas City in a 60-second video. She said it’s a challenge, because it’s their first time in the city.

DeMarchi, 19, said the competition had taught them the importance of getting along under pressure.

“Sometimes we bump heads, but you just have to communicate and understand who has the better technique at something,” she said.

To reach Annie Greenberg, call 816-234-4746 or send email to

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