Thousands of students whip up a grand SkillsUSA finale for Kansas City

Elisa Gentry decorated a cake Thursday morning during the national SkillsUSA competition.
Elisa Gentry decorated a cake Thursday morning during the national SkillsUSA competition. The Kansas City Star

Students powered up robots, slipped on their oven mitts and rolled under trucks on Thursday.

It was SkillsUSA’s big competition day, with 6,000 students competing in 99 contests.

Most of the competitors were in Bartle Hall, showing off their skills in cosmetology, criminal justice, automobile repair, welding and dozens of other fields. The SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference has been running since Monday, with Kansas City playing host to students from around the country, plus judges and other guests.

The 50th anniversary of the SkillsUSA conference also marks its last here. After 21 years it has outgrown the city’s available space and will move to Louisville, Ky., next year.

A mass of volunteers has grown to support the conference over that time, many of them retired teachers from the area. For most, Kansas City’s last SkillsUSA conference will be their final go too.

Greg Nolting, who has volunteered for at least 15 years, compared Kansas City volunteers’ run with the conference to the plot line of “Gilligan’s Island.”

“They went out for a three-hour tour, well, we had a three-year tour,” Nolting said. “And they’re still on that island, and we’re still on this island.”

Deb Reynolds said: “Part of it is we signed on to a three-year contract 21 years ago.” She’s been with the conference as long as it’s been in Kansas City and has worked in education for 40 years. “We feel like it’s time for a new generation.”

Over the years, volunteers have seen the conference grow in size, especially with technology. When it began, there was just one computer contest. Nolting said some contest areas are for jobs that didn’t even exist when the conference came here.

But even as the contests multiplied and changed, volunteers said the core mission of the program remained — to hone students’ skills, instill a work ethic and watch them succeed.

“You have a lot of great people sitting around this table that have been a lot of great mentors, and there have been people before us and there will be people after us,” Jane Merdic said. She’s been volunteering for 15 years and didn’t quit even when she moved from the Kansas City area for a school district job near St. Louis. “There’s a lot of dedication about this.”

Volunteers said they had watched students receive job offers moments after the awards ceremony at the end of the week. Being a part of something that pushes students to grow has been special for them.

“After you retire, you ask yourself if it was all worth it,” said Al Babich, a 21-year volunteer and an educator for 36. “All you have to do is come here and you know it was.”

In the end, they say it’s all for the kids. For the Kansas City area students competing at SkillsUSA, this was their last chance to win big on a national stage set in their own backyard. To get this far, students must take gold in state contests.

One competitor, Marisol Rivas, 18, recently graduated from Park Hill High School and was trying for the top spot in the crime scene investigation contest.

“This is what I’ve always wanted to do ever since I was little,” Rivas said. “I really like the adrenaline rush of competition. That’s my favorite part.”

Rivas was in Officer Derrick Bruns’ Law Enforcement and Crime Scene Investigation class at the Northland Career Center, spending the first half of her school day there. The class pushed her to nationals last year, but she didn’t place.

Cody Young, a 17-year-old who just graduated from Park Hill as well, was also in Bruns’ class. This was his first time at the competition.

“Last year I didn’t even make it past in-house competitions,” Young said. “Now this year, I’m at nationals. It’s … the thrill of getting somewhere with something I want to be in life. It’s just amazing.”

Both students said competing at SkillsUSA has made them more passionate about their fields. Young wants to be a policeman, while Rivas is more interested in crime scene investigation. In the fall, Young will join the military while Rivas heads to the University of Kansas.

Although high school students make up the bulk of the contestants, postsecondary students also compete. Doug Lentz is a postsecondary electrical wiring contestant from Kansas City, Kan. At 38, he’s much older than most contestants. He said he decided to change career paths after seeing how much his electrician billed him for some work on his home.

He enrolled in a one-year program at the Community College Technical Education Center. With a 20-month-old son and another baby on the way, he needed a change of pace from his career in marketing.

“This gave me a chance to do something I really enjoy but also raise the household income,” he said. “I’ve always really enjoyed it, and there’s quite a strong demand in the trade right now.”

Champions will be announced at Friday night’s awards ceremony at Kemper Arena.

Next year’s champions will move to Louisville’s Expo Center, which will provide a million and a half square feet. SkillsUSA has signed a five-year contract with the city. Louisville’s Convention and Visitors Bureau had a booth set up at this year’s conference.

“A lot of the things that you see here outdoors will be able to come inside,” said Karen Williams-Goetz, the president and CEO of the Louisville bureau. “And then they’ll be able to grow and expand SkillsUSA as well, for the future.”

Katrina Gallagher, also with the convention and visitors bureau, said the downtown hotels will be able to handle SkillsUSA students as well. She said no one will need to be more than 15 miles from the Expo Center.

Louisville expects about a $12.7 million economic boost from the conference. Gallagher said that number only factors in hotel rooms and convention space, so other economic activity, such as eating out, buying souvenirs and going to Louisville attractions, will raise that number.

As for manpower, Stacey Yates said Louisville is known as “the compassionate city” and has seen large numbers of volunteers for similar events, like the FFA conference. She’s with the convention and visitors bureau as well.

“You’re gonna see a lot of retired teachers … that want to give back,” Yates said.

To reach Molly Duffy, call 816-234-4072 or send email to

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