For a time Wednesday morning at the Alliant Energy Center, surrounded by hundreds of young people, Caleb Wojtalewicz felt like he was at his job in Stevens Point. He was asked to troubleshoot an electrical problem with a front-end loader.

“It could be caused by a lot of different things, but I’ll go through it all and figure it out,” said Wojtalewicz, who was among more than 1,500 middle school, high school and technical college students competing in the 44th annual SkillsUSA Wisconsin state leadership and skills conference. The competition offers students opportunities to showcase for potential future employers an assortment of skills from welding and vehicle engine repair to robotics and engineering.

Wojtalewicz, who graduates next month with an associate’s degree in diesel technology from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Sturgeon Bay, isn’t worried about future employment because he knows his field is in high demand. The Department of Labor estimates there are more than 260,000 people working in this field now and it will grow steadily the next several years, eventually employing more than 290,000 by 2024.

Rob Durham, human resources director for Milwaukee-based Lakeside International Trucks and one of the dozens of volunteer advisers at the event, is encouraged these hundreds of students are considering careers in skilled trades.

“The skilled trades are a challenge to get people interested in,” Durham said. “The service we provide is a critical component to our economy, and we need people who can maintain vehicles.”

Dealing with the nation’s aging and shrinking workforce has been an issue for decades. Employers across all industries are using a barrage of strategies to address the problem, including partnering with organizations like SkillsUSA to reach young people and get them thinking about these types of careers.

Brent Kindred, state director for SkillsUSA Wisconsin, said participation in the state chapter has grown from 1,165 when he took over in 2006 to 2,541 today, which is the largest number to date. Participation in the state’s chapter has been well over 2,000 annually the past five years and has steadily grown as teachers and advisers to the program have been more active in directing students to sign up, he said.

“Our schools are forming partnerships with businesses in their communities, and those relations lead to getting more people involved and informed about what we’re trying to do,” Kindred said. “A lot of industries believe in what we do. Whether it’s welding of information technology, we’re all about getting more highly skilled workers.”

Standing out

While Wojtalewicz has been working toward his technical degree, he also has been employed by Kyle Kluck Trucking & Excavating in Stevens Point.

Wojtalewicz, who also was tested on his welding skills, got involved with SkillsUSA at the encouragement of one of his teachers. He didn’t qualify for the competition last year but tried again and earned eligibility this year.

“If you do well here, it’s something you can add to your resume because it says you made it (to the competition) and you’re one of the best from your school,” Wojtalewicz said. “That can open more doors for you down the road.”

It’s something Durham looks for on resumes submitted by engine technicians. Lakeside International Trucks, which has seven other locations including Madison, has been involved with SkillsUSA for 15 years.

Being involved in the SkillsUSA competition gives Durham and other businesses a look at whether students are learning what they need in school to enter the workforce.

“Being a diesel tech isn’t just about being comfortable getting greasy, we need to know someone has problem-solving skills and has the aptitude to get the job done,” Durham said. It’s also an opportunity to observe how to enhance curriculums at the K-12 and technical college levels to ensure students are learning the most current skills.

“In many industries, needs and regulations change all the time, so it’s good for (businesses) to be involved so we can ensure students are prepared,” Durham said.

SkillsUSA, which began in 1965 as the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, has more than 18,000 chapters around the country with with more than 335,000 students and advisers.

The organization’s goal has always been to ensure that students are learning and have the skills sought by employers.

“Employers always are seeking skilled workers and we are grooming the workers they want,” Kindred said, noting that while technologies may change, many skills endure. “Something that never goes out of style is leadership skills.”

Help from volunteers

Volunteer advisers, some of whom are business professionals, often work with program participants to help them overcome fears of public speaking, provide advice on how to work in teams to complete tasks and help develop problem-solving skills.

George Laubmeier of Richland Center, who was introduced to SkillsUSA as a high school student in 1990, credited the program for helping him develop leadership skills and boost his self-confidence.

“As a business owner, I have to be able to walk into a company and meet with a CEO or whomever is managing the daily operations and comfortably tell that person what I can do to help them better manage their business,” Laubmeier said. “That’s not an easy thing to do, but I feel SkillsUSA gave me the skills and confidence to do it on a daily basis.”

He has volunteered for the organization at the state and national levels since graduating from high school in 1994.

“The organization is all about helping the next generation of (workers) become better workers and ensuring they have the skills to further their careers,” Laubmeier said. “That’s what it did for me and I feel it would be wrong of me to not give back.”

“If you do well here, it’s something you can add to your resume because it says you made it (to the competition) and you’re one of the best from your school. That can open more doors for you down the road.” Caleb Wojtalewicz

Larry Avila is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.