Putting a Spotlight on Technical and Vocational Skills

Co-authored with Suzanne van de Raadt, Director Program Development, Alcoa Foundation

Every parent has a dream for his or her child, whether it's that they win the big game, excel in mathematics, become the band leader, or lead the science club. All of these achievements require skill sets that are celebrated in schools across the U.S. - with trophy cases, in elite national science competitions and the local paper. An increasing number of students are working hard on developing other, lesser recognized skill sets - skills that are not only deserving of admiration and support, but critical for the a sustained U.S. economic recovery.

Recently - and especially since 2008 - there has been more discussion about the value of vocational skills: specialized training required in order to pursue careers in fields such as mechanical engineering, welding, machining, and electrical work. Investment in education and skills is the cornerstone of societies all over the world, and essential for developing an employable, globally competitive work force and an attractive economic environment for investors. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for skilled trade jobs is expected to increase faster than the 11 percent national average of all jobs over the next 10 years. While the students who are trained in a vocation represent such an important part of the future U.S. workforce and the nation's economic prosperity, they receive little recognition or funding and support.

It's time we support and celebrate the full spectrum of student achievement.

This summer the global nonprofit organization WorldSkills is showcasing the economic value of vocational skills and boosting recognition for the skilled trades worldwide with the 43rd WorldSkills Competition, held in São Paulo, Brazil, from August 11-15. SkillsUSA will be sending a team of 18 to compete alongside students from more than 70 countries. The U.S. team will compete in 16 skill areas, some for the first time. New competitions for the U.S. team include the Manufacturing Team Challenge and Heavy Vehicle Equipment Maintenance. SkillsUSA is a nonprofit association that serves more than 300,000 high school, college and postsecondary students and their instructors in trade, technical, and skilled service instructional programs across the U.S.

Erica Heckman - an award-winning welder studying trigonometry, geometry, and blueprint reading for the event - is a member of "team USA" heading to Brazil, and has been preparing for the Manufacturing Team Challenge since the Spring. "Being chosen to represent the United States in the WorldSkills Competition is incredible," said Heckman. "There are so many young people in the USA who would love this opportunity, and I hope we do well by all the students, teachers and other people who have supported us; it truly is a tremendous honor."

Jobs in the skilled trades are the backbone of American manufacturing and the foundation of modern life. They combine STEM competencies with industrial skills and ingenuity and support nearly every industry. They are also the driving force behind successful careers and companies, thriving industries, and strong economies. Skilled trades keep the world working.

Let's celebrate the individuals who demonstrate talent and passion for their chosen field by wishing the students representing the U.S. this year in São Paulo good luck! Win or lose, their commitment to excellence in the skilled trades keeps our economic engine humming.