How Does Skills USA Work?

Skills USA is a one of several nationwide Career and Technical Student Organizations serving high school and community college students.  The purpose of these programs is to prepare the students with job-ready skills.  The most famous of these programs is FFA (Future Farmers of America).  The others are Business Professionals of America, DECA (business), Educators Rising, FCCLA (Family, Career and Community Leaders), FBLA (Future Business Leaders), HOSA (Health Professionals), and TSA (Technology - STEM).

As someone new to this organization and passionate about understanding the Skills Gap I offer this (admittedly dry) summary of “how SkillsUSA works.”   Attending the 53rd annual conference in Louisville I was struck by how impressive and professional the event was.  I saw that it represents the tip of a mighty iceberg of history and structure and very hard, for the most part volunteer work by teachers and industry members across the country.

You can go to the SkillsUSA website ( ) for official material, or better yet join SkillsUSA as I did for only $35 per year.  But here is my three-page summary of how it all works.

The Model

A student in a high school, trade school or community college decides to take a practical elective course.  Maybe it is culinary arts, or auto body shop repair, or diesel engine repair, or cabinet making.  It turns out that the teacher of the course has founded or is one of the advisors in chapter of Skills USA at the school.  The student takes the culinary arts class.  During the class the teacher introduces Skills USA.  The first two impressions of the student are likely to be the competitions and the  “running” of the schools Skills USA Chapter.


Skills USA provides competition Technical Standard list to the teacher.  The standards list the skills that the student will need to demonstrate during the competition.  These lists are crafted by industry volunteers who serve on committees. The teacher/advisor is responsible for developing and delivering a curriculum which will prepare the student for the competition in addition to passing the course and gain academic credit.  During the school year competitions are held.  Depending on the State and the competition skill there may be several regional competitions.    Industry volunteers and/or academics design and administer the competition: they arrange for the equipment, supplies, venue and funding.  The teacher/advisors attends the competition with the students.  The student will be judged on how well they perform the tasks as well as on their attire.  Each skill has a prescribed uniform (See separate Uniform blog post).  Each competition last one or two days.  At the end the judges will provide feedback to the contestants and award medals to the best performing students.  The winners of one competition are then invited to participate in the next level competition and eventually at the State level Skills USA competition.  The State competitions are held in April.  The gold medal winners of the State competitions are invited to the annual National competition where 6000 students compete in about 100 individual skill areas.  At the closing ceremony (this year in Louisville) the winners of each skill area parade up on stage and receive a medal and all of the accolades that attend their achievements.

The SkillsUSA Chapters

The local chapter is a volunteer organization run by the Teacher/Advisor and the students.  Like all volunteer organization there are budgets, fund raising and lots of organizational tasks.  The students, therefore, have the opportunity to learn and practice organizational skills working with their peers, learning from the upper classmen, and learning from the Advisor.  Leadership roles exist at the State and National levels as well.  At the top of the SkillsUSA organization are student national officers: vice presidents, a treasurer, etc.  It is this group of about 15 officers who are responsible, with the experienced support of the small SkillsUSA national staff for putting on the Annual Conference.  At the Opening and Closing Ceremonies they are delivering speeches, honoring dignitaries, announcing awards...all in a world class, professional venue.  Leaders are elected each year and serve for one year.

The History

SkillsUSA was founded in 1965 as part of the establishment of the national career programs. Its size (as measured by number of chapters and competitors) has ebbed and flowed over the years.  Under the leadership of the Executive Director Tim Lawrence it has grown to 316,000 students.  This compares with 650,000 FFA members.  Its ability to motivate and reward students across the country to learn skills is balanced on three pillars:

  1. The teacher/advisors who work in the trenches teaching the students, motivating them, mentoring them.

  2. Industry who provide the financial resources, donations, endless volunteer hours to sit on committees and run the competitions

  3. The Departments of Education at the Federal and State levels.

The “work” of the approximately 30 paid staff located in Virginia is six-fold:

The Annual Conference and Competition

The staff design the annual conference and competition.  Choose and negotiate the venue, communicate with the chapters, set the agenda, coordinate with all of the volunteer-led competitions, arrange for the SkillsUSA University presenters and content.

Support the 4000 Chapters

The National organization works with each State organization to support the founding and development of local chapters.  They have developed materials, hold workshops, support and push the state leadership.  There are many ways during the annual conference that outstanding advisors/teachers are honored.

Provide “Life Skills” curriculum

While each teacher is responsible for developing and delivering the curriculum necessary for mastering the technical skills, SkillsUSA has developed a curriculum called Professional Development Program.  This is available to each teacher/advisor to add to their classroom or Chapter programming.  Personal, Technical and Workplace skills cover the “foundation” skills needed to secure, succeed in jobs -- communication, work ethic, responsibility, etc.

Manage the network of industry volunteers

Naturally industry is motivated to support the mission of SkillsUSA.  Companies are eager to find qualified employees, colleges are eager to find students, equipment suppliers and retailers are eager to build loyal customers.  The work of SkillsUSA is to channel and manage this interest and its financial resources.  This work is accomplished through the establishment and running of a hierarchy of dozens of skills committees which oversee the 130 individual skills (from diesel engine repair to plumbing to cosmetology and advertising design).  These committees:

  1. Set the Technical Standards for each competition.  

  2. Run the competition -- volunteers, materials, safety, setup and tear down, etc.

  3. Coordinate the donation of all of the materials (think of Lowe’s providing all of the lumber for the carpentry competition, or Carrier setting up the air conditioners for the HVAC competition) and prizes for the winners (a set of plumbing tools for the plumbers; hair products for the hair stylists).

  4. Sit on the Boards to provide governance and advocacy

Budgets, Fundraising

The annual SkillsUSA budget is $10M  .  This pays the staff, runs the annual competition, provides all of the communication materials.  Of this budget about half comes from the chapters and membership and the annual conference and half from industry donations.

PR and Advocacy

Naturally to accomplish these tasks the SkillsUSA staff has deep public relations, communication, volunteer coordination, event coordination work.  An increasing emphasis is also being focused on advocacy at the National and State levels to demonstrate how SkillsUSA is an important answer to the Skills Gap problems of the US.

Skills Gap, Vocational Education


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