Teens polish cert smarts by competing in SkillsUSA

Whether it’s marching band, or debate squad, or cheerleading camp, or varsity athletics, kids in high school like to compete. Sure, it looks good on college applications, and parents and teachers like to encourage students to excel. For those who really catch the vision, however, for the ones who stay the course and take daylong bus rides to neighboring states, there’s probably a much simpler explanation. Competition is fun.

That’s what’s at the heart of the SkillsUSA Championships this week in Kansas City, Mo. Teens from across the country have gathered to show their stuff in just about every realm of learning you can imagine. At the first SkillsUSA Championships in 1967, 54 students went toe-to-toe in three different competitions. In 2014, there are more than 6,000 participants squaring off in 99 competitive categories.

As a high school freshman, Ryan Higgins decided to jump into the SkillsUSA technology competitions for computer applications and computer maintenance. He stayed after school for weeks to study and prepare, taking practice test after practice test. “We had 80 kids competing from our school,” Higgins said. “We drove up to the Garden State Exhibit Center. We were up until 1 a.m. in the morning, practicing, quizzing each other.”

The next day brought a six-hour competition. “There were a bunch of computers and they all had issues, and we had to figure out what was wrong with them,” Higgins said. “I thought, ‘This is fun, this is cool, I got to meet lots of cool people.’ ” He competed again as a sophomore, junior and senior.

Now 31 and director of technology for Trenton Catholic Academy in Hamilton, N.J., Higgins is still involved in SkillsUSA, helping students discover its rewards the same way that he did.  Higgins, who helps coordinate SkillsUSA in New Jersey, said he has a long-term commitment to the program that changed his own high school experience  so much. He intends to pitch in, he said, “Until I stop breathing.”

Kids makes connections with other kids through Skills USA, but they also make connections with potential employers. Recruiters are absolutely scouting the kids for jobs, Higgins said, whether in technology, or any of the other myriad disciplines that the nationwide competition embraces, from cabinetmaking to TV production, from medical assisting to crime scene investigation.

All the way to nationals

Ray Cieszynski used his cert smarts to excel at the state level of the SkillsUSA competition.In 2014, 17-year-old Ray Cieszynski of Hackensack, N.J., is one of the several thousand competitors to follow his gifts to Kansas City. This is Ray’s first crack at SkillsUSA — he took an interest in the competition as a sophomore, but didn’t get all of his forms filled out in time to compete.  A student at the Paramus Campus of Bergen County Technical Schools, Ray has been intrigued by computers and computer technology since his freshman year.

One thing he enjoys about computers is their malleability: “You can build them the way you want them. You can make anything.” Ray does most of his computing on a laptop, but said that he thinks it could be fun to build a PC. “That might be a great birthday present,” Ray said. “I would like to build a computer to play games.” Some of his favorites: World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, and Saints Row.

Ray gold medaled in computer maintenance technology at the state level of SkillsUSA and said that he didn’t have as much trouble as he’d thought he might. One big reason for that was probably all of the hours spent honing his skills. “I was really prepared for this,” he said, including three straight weeks of drills immediately prior to competition. Along the way, he also grabbed his first IT certification, the PC Pro credential from TestOut.

He’s got a few years to think about his professional future, but Ray said he’s pretty certain that it will involve computers, possibly in the realm of law enforcement. (Maybe he can get into some of the criminal justice competitions at next year’s SkillsUSA.) For now, his focus is the SkillsUSA Championships. And also the social side of Skills USA — the fun stuff. After competing at the state level in April, Ray said, “I’ve just been making new friends and seeing stuff I’ve never seen before.”

It sounds like Ray Cieszynski will definitely be back next year. The only thing that’s still up in the air is whether or not his return trip will be as a defending national champion.

CertMag met Ray Cieszynski in April. We’ll check in with him later this week to find out how he does in Kansas City, and recap the action for our readers.

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Certification Magazine was launched in 1999 and remained in print until mid-2008. Publication was restarted on a quarterly basis in February 2014. Subscribe to CertMag here.

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