One of my first impressions at SkillsUSA Championship event in June was uniforms. On Tuesday evening at the Opening Ceremony I found a seat in the NBA-Basketball-sized arena at the Louisville Expo Center and looked out over the parade of entering high school and college-aged participants. The 6000 contestants were processing in like the athletes at the Olympics opening ceremony. Each State’s participants were led by a student holding the state flag and another two students holding a banner honoring their state’s banner. Each of the processing students had on a bright red blazer with the SkillsUSA patch sewn over the left breast pocket, a white long sleeve oxford shirt, black tie, black slacks or skirt and black shoes. It reminded me of one of the recent Olympics when the Americans arrived with the Ralph Lauren blue blazers. Most state delegations were also wearing another state-specific accessory. The Maine delegation had on a foam hat in the shape of a lobster. The Texans were, of course, wearing their over-sized white cowboy hats. So as Queen’s “We Are the Champion” rocked the arena, in walked State after State delegations screaming, taking selfies, waving to the crowd, obviously feeling proud, cocky and pumped up.
The impression on me, a first time observer of the event was inspirational. I saw the power of the tribe - a group of young people belonging to a tight knit community. The deafening roar from each state as throughout the program one of the speakers mentioned their name was testament to their pride as a state delegation to the National event.
The next day, Wednesday I visited the SkillsUSA shop in the main lobby of the sprawling event. In it I found curriculum and hats and branded notebooks and pins and normal “oops I forgot” items like toiletries. But a full third of the large shop was filled with uniforms. Each skill area competition has a prescribed uniform -- and in some cases more than one. So the welders uniform are khaki pants and long sleeved shirt and steel toed boots. The auto body workers wear dark blue work pants and light blue button up short sleeved work shirts. The culinary bakers wear black and white checked pants, white double breasted chef coat and floppy white baker hats. The software programmers wear black slacks, shoes and bright white polo shirts. The hair stylists wore black slacks and white thigh length smocks. The nurses wore royal blue scrubs. Not surprisingly, Carhartt, the working man’s clotherie company is a major sponsor of SkillsUSA. Each top is emblazoned with the SkillsUSA logo.
I walked throughout the Expo center taking in the 100 odd competitions. Each group of competitors -- ranging from 10 to 50 students depending on the competition -- was wearing an identical uniform. Once again I saw the power of tribe. This time among the competitors and differentiating them from the tribes of the other skills. As I walked the halls between events I’d see the nurse talking with the carpenter - each identified by their uniform.
The red blazer is the common denominator and is worn at the opening and closing ceremonies and formal dinners.
Each uniform was clean and unwrinkled. Even on day two of the competitions.
I remember one of my strong impressions of Japan in the 1980’s was of the uniforms. Many jobs -- retail clerk at a department store, janitor in a office building, tea serving assistant, librarian, train driver, wore a neat uniform. This struck me as very different from the US where few people wore uniforms. A clerk in a store might have a name tag, but otherwise was dressed in their own style. In my company, Bay Cities Automatic Gates I supplied uniforms to my field technicians. Eventually I settled on a uniform service. Each employee was issued a dozen navy blue button-up work shirts -- either short or long sleeved -- with their name in a patch over their left pocket and the Bay Cities Automatic Gates logo over the right. While initially I also provided pants my employees chose to wear their own work pants. I saw this as creating a brand image to my clients of consistency and professionalism.
What I saw at SkillsUSA, however, was something more, a sense of belonging and pride.