High-quality career and professional skill development took center stage last week as over 600 high school and college students took part in the annual SkillsUSA State Leadership and Skills Conference. Held in Ankeny at the Des Moines Area Community College campus, this two-day competition featured over 50 different leadership and technical competitions for students to test their technical skills and knowledge, explore career pathways and make valuable connections with local industry leaders.

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Southeast Polk senior Delvis Kouete competed in architectural drafting.

Southeast Polk High School seniors Delvis Kouete and Simon Frohock, both 17, were well-prepared for the competition, which featured timed activities related to industrial technology, carpentry, robotics, automotive repair and job interview techniques, among many others. For this year’s skills competition, Delvis competed in architectural drafting and was a member of the school’s quiz bowl team. Simon, the 2023 state champion in cabinet making, returned for a second year in the cabinet making contest. Both students competed well in their individual competitions, with Delvis placing fifth and Simon serving as this year’s runner-up.

“The skills competition can help you strive for excellence in your work and learning,” Simon said. “Even though it’s a competition and there is pressure to do well, it’s a good, low-risk way to see what an employee in this work has to do every day.”

Both Simon and Delvis noted that the competition not only helps to strengthen a student’s technical skills, but it also engages students in career pathway discovery and professional skill development.

“Being a part of SkillsUSA and competing in the skills competition has helped me learn new skills with my hands and work on teamwork, communication and leadership skills,” Delvis said. “You learn how to work with other people that aren’t like you and get your mind thinking about your future career.”

Along with the individual contests, all competitors at the SkillsUSA State Leadership and Skills Conference were required to submit a resume and take a professional development test that focused on workplace, professional and technical skills as well as overall knowledge of SkillsUSA.

“SkillsUSA helps provide real-world context to the content being taught by classroom educators,” said Kent Storm, state director for SkillsUSA Iowa. “Taking the learning beyond the classroom allows students to grow and learn next to industry partners and gain valuable experience."

As one of Iowa’s career and technical student organizations (CTSO), SkillsUSA champions the skilled trades industry and provides opportunities for students to apply the skills they have developed in classrooms through conferences, competitions, community service events, worksite visits and other activities.

“Participation in a CTSO like SkillsUSA helps students gain hands-on experience and connect classroom curricula to careers,” said Cale Hutchings, education consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “Through CTSOs, students can become leaders and strengthen their employability skills, which is valuable as they explore potential next steps in their college and career pathways.”

SkillsUSA boasts a roster of over 400,000 members nationwide. In Iowa, over 1,300 students and advisers in career and technical education programs participate in local SkillsUSA chapters.

At Southeast Polk, 21 student members are a part of their SkillsUSA chapter. Led by industrial technology teachers and chapter advisers Ryan Andersen and Brett Rickabaugh, the students have been involved with several community service projects, employer presentations and opportunities to work closely with instructors.

“Any time a student participates in SkillsUSA, it gives us more time with that student to elaborate on what we’ve learned in class,” Andersen said. “They can connect the idea to the planning, design and completion of a project and how that activity fits into a real career. That’s something we can’t replicate without a CTSO.”

Anderson also stated that students who participate in SkillsUSA and activities like the State Leadership and Skills Conference build confidence through their experiences.

“It really helps students to have the confidence to rely on their skills and what they know,” he said. “The skills competition requires them to use problem-solving skills and build off their knowledge to continue to learn and persevere.”

This year’s first-place winners at the SkillsUSA State Leadership and Skills Conference will move onward to compete with 6,000 other students at the national conference in Atlanta this June.

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For Simon and Delvis, the skills competition was another step in building necessary skills and acumen for their futures. Simon, with his penchant for cabinet making, already has a full-time job lined up after graduation with a local cabinet shop. Additionally, Delvis would like to pursue something within the computer science field, perhaps in the coding or software engineering areas, and although he is changing fields, he believes SkillsUSA has helped him feel more prepared for the future.

“It has definitely helped me with skill-building and problem-solving,” he said. “What I’ve learned will be beneficial no matter what I decide to do next.”