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Putting their skills to work
Students who compete in Skills USA get real-world experience and a reward for their efforts
Brannon Dean, a student at East Hall High School, folds brochures during the graphic communications portion of the Skills USA competition at Johnson High School. The school hosted regional-level competitions in advertising design and graphic communications. - photo by Tom Reed

As students from five area high schools crouched over computers recently at Johnson High School, they not only focused on creating a logo for a new product, but they also were honing in on skills for a career after high school.

The students were competing in the advertising design section of the Skills USA Region 2 competition, a program that allows students apply practical, real-world experience in various trades and occupations. Students are rewarded with portfolio pieces and awards to list on their resumes before they’ve even graduated from high school. And, for the select few who move from the regional competition to state and win first place, the get a paid trip to the Skills USA national competition held every year in Kansas City, Kan.

Johnson High School hosted two of the regional competitions — advertising design and graphic communications — and the rest of the competition took place this past Thursday at North Georgia Technical College in Clarkesville. Other competitions cover cosmetology, masonry, wiring, carpentry, preschool teaching and nursing.

Amy Pippin, a graphic designer with Hi-Rez Solutions with a decade of experience in the field, was judging the advertising design competition. She listed a half-dozen specifications the students needed to follow as part of the competition, including setting up an advertisement with specific margins and other professional printing requirements.

But for students like Will Anthony, who take classes at Johnson High School, the requirements are no sweat — mainly because his classes already handle some of the printing for Hall County Schools and he’s accustomed to setting up electronic files to be ready for the press.

“We call it co-curricular, because it’s skills they’re learning in the classroom, and then taking them to a competition,” said Cindy Tumblin, the youth apprenticeship coordinator and Skills USA advisor at Johnson.

As she spoke, another student competing in the graphic communications competition fed sheets of paper through an electronic folding machine, one of the steps required to produce a finished graphic design piece.

Tumblin said many students who compete in Skills USA already have related experience, whether it’s from the classroom or through an apprenticeship program, so the Skills USA competition is simply an extension of that education. The students also have to work out homework and other assignments from their other teachers, since the competitions take place during class time.

Anthony said he already has some real-world graphic design experience, working part time at Blackshear Place Baptist Church. But graphic design isn’t his true passion, he says, which is something he realized while doing work for the Skills USA competitions.

“What I want to go into is news anchoring,” he said as he lined up the candy-colored bears on his computer screen. Anthony has already won a Skills USA YouTube video contest, along with a silver medal in video broadcasting.

Anthony’s teacher in printing and graphic design, Scott Porter, has been teaching at Johnson for about a decade. Porter said the cross-training in the classroom and being exposed to professional equipment — like the folding machine in the classroom or the presses owned by the school district — makes the students who participate in Skills USA even more valuable to potential employers.

“If you’re going to have a good work force, you need these guys,” he said. “They need to be educationally smart and skills based.”

And for students with the focus and talent to make it to the national competition, what follows is opportunities for well-paying jobs sometimes right out of high school.

“The national competition will just blow your mind. ... Region 2 has really done well; Hall County had three students there last year,” Tumblin said, noting the three gold medals taken home. “If a student gets to that level, businesses are like, ‘Come see me.’ It’s amazing.”