MCC students lead Nebraska schools at
During a May visit to the Metropolitan Community College Applied Technology Center, a solitary banner hangs from the ceiling of the Fire Science Technology program space. Nothing flashy – just white vinyl material, but it contains an important block of blue and red text: “SkillsUSA National Champion, Mason Ingram, Firefighting 2022.”
Four of the Fire Science Technology students in class that day talked about the thrills and challenges of competing and medaling at the SkillsUSA Nebraska Championships in April and how nice it would be to hang another banner next to Ingram’s with a strong performance at nationals, the competition is the country’s largest showcase of skilled trades.
Gage Woods made sure the program added to its accolades in his first time qualifying for nationals. His silver medal performance at the SkillsUSA Championships in Atlanta, which wrapped up in June, was the top individual finish among the 20 MCC students who competed. It was also the most points scored at the event by any of the 179 Nebraska students who participated in a field that featured students from all 50 states and multiple U.S. territories.
In addition to Woods’ runner-up national performance, MCC students brought home three bronze medals. Alayna Kustka, a digital photography student, became a two-time national champion by taking a bronze medal with partner Hannah Amberg in the digital cinema production event. Joe Lytle earned a bronze in collision damage appraisal as a first-time participant. MCC had the most medalists of all participating Nebraska schools represented in Atlanta.
The annual competition, part of the SkillsUSA National Leadership & Skills Conference, brought together more than 5,100 of the top students in the nation to participate in 110 timed and judged occupational and leadership skill events. All 20 participating MCC students finished in the top 25 of their respective events.
Woods, who went first of all college participants in the firefighting event, watched the competition unfold from the stands after completing his drills that simulated real experiences in the field. He said he knew he had a strong performance, but competitors didn’t find out where they finished until the moment the audience did – when the names of the top three finishers in each event appeared on the jumbotron (and in no particular order).
“Waiting in the back room to find out where we finished had all of us on the edge of our seats. When they called the medalists up to the stage for each event, they put them in random order, so you couldn’t even tell if you finished in first or third place. I tried to figure it out as it went along, but I had no idea until they announced my name,” Woods said.
Boomer Strawn, MCC Fire Science Technology program director, said Woods’ performance in Atlanta has been building since participating in SkillsUSA during high school as part of the Career Academy pathway at Papillion-La Vista South. Firefighting is a tradition in the Woods family. His grandfather and godfather both had careers with the Las Vegas Fire Department. With two quarters of classes left to complete his associate degree, Woods has already applied to fire departments in Nevada, Tennessee and Texas.
“I have had the opportunity to witness the growth of his skills, ability, dedication and unwavering commitment to the safety and well-being of others,” Strawn said. “Gage possesses a unique combination of technical experience, physical fitness and remarkable professionalism that makes him an outstanding representative for our program.”
Of all the things that stood out to Woods about SkillsUSA, meeting peers from across the country and exchanging state pins with them, a decadesrunning tradition at the conference, was what he enjoyed most. MCC students were highly identifiable, wearing black cowboy hats with a white “N” on the front and brims lined with LED lights. Woods left the conference with pins traded with students from Idaho, New Jersey, Texas and West Virginia.
“Being from Nebraska, there were a lot of people asking, ‘Where does that even exist?’,” Woods said.
SkillsUSA training leads to career growth for Lytle
Lytle’s bronze medal in Atlanta was a form of validation for a decision to transfer to MCC from a four-year university. The 21-year-old started pursuing a degree in cybersecurity after high school, but, the cost of attaining the degree caused him to look at other options. As part of a paid internship at B Street Collision, Lytle has been working as an in-shop estimator during the day for the past nine months, attending night classes at MCC.
“Comparing the cost of attending a [four-year university] to going to MCC, you’re getting the same education, plus lots of hands-on training. It was a no-brainer for me,” Lytle said.
Instructor Joe Baker said Lytle made the most of the opportunities presented to him since entering the program. He attended every optional practice offered by the Auto Collision Technology department ahead of SkillsUSA. After spending five years detailing cars, he worked his way into an in-shop estimator position with B Street Collision a few months back, which helped him prepare for the competition in a professional environment.
“Joe has a demanding schedule during the week and worked hard with his advisor Chris Cogan to make sure he was prepared for SkillsUSA,” Baker said. “B Street Collision offered him the opportunity to move into a position aligned with his competition. It turned into a great career opportunity.”
Even though he was a first-time participant, Lytle said he didn’t let that damper his expectations. “I’m a pretty competitive guy. Having a personal goal of winning and then actually achieving it is such a big thing. You want to set reasonable goals, but you’ve also got to shoot for the stars sometimes,” Lytle said.
MCC women stand out in performance and numbers
Natalie Salt’s feelings were similar to those of the hundreds of other college and high school students as they arrived at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island to compete in the SkillsUSA Nebraska Championships, one of 80 MCC students to compete at the state meet — the majority for the first time, with gold medalists in eligible contests qualifying for nationals.
“I was so nervous about this, but I told myself, ‘I’ve done the work and put in the time.’ And I felt calmer as I got going,” Salt said of her work on the wooden toolbox she built during the cabinetmaking competition.
The next day, Salt would discover she had good reason to trust her training. She won a gold medal at state and followed that with a top-10 finish at the SkillsUSA Championships.
Qualifying for Atlanta was a defining moment for the 35-year-old. Her path to taking classes at MCC followed 12 years as a stay-at-home mom. At state, she was part of an all-female MCC participant roster in the construction science events along with Simone Cribbs in cabinetmaking and Alyssa Pirlot in carpentry. Of the 20 MCC students who attended nationals, 35% were women.
“I think it’s great. There are still way more men than women in the trades, but there is a larger number of [women] than I was expecting to see here. We have different qualities about us, and it’s definitely hard sometimes because we get underestimated. But it feels good for all of us to be here because we put in the time, and I feel like we’re a good representation of our school,” Salt said.
An oddly shaped bathroom in Salt’s former home helped her summon a skill she had for building.
“I like to be self-sufficient and work by myself. And I like to make things that fit a space,” Salt said. “I had to figure out how to best use the space and knew I was going to have to make something to do it because there wasn’t anything I was going to find that would fit.”
Salt said her family moved from Iowa to Bennington last year. Her husband works from home, and when her youngest child started kindergarten this year, she saw a window of opportunity to turn her interest in carpentry into an employable skill. She registered for classes at MCC.
“I was ready to do something for Natalie instead of Mom. I get emotional about it because I’m really proud that I can create something,” Salt said. “Going back to school as an older student, I haven’t one hundred percent figured out what I want to do yet, but I think something like carpentry or cabinetmaking because it’s a lot of fun and takes a lot of attention to detail. I notice those details and make sure the work gets done correctly.”
Drew Henrichs, an MCC Construction Technology instructor who worked with Salt and Cribbs to prepare for the event, said he was proud of how they handled themselves.
“They were nervous. When you get into the arena and see who you’re up against, it can be intimidating. I told them it’s good to be nervous because it means you’re out of your comfort zone,” Henrichs said. “But when they saw the project, the nerves calmed because it’s a lot of the work we did in class.”
Cribbs and Pirlot were among an additional 15 MCC students who attended the conference in Atlanta as part of an Immersive Experience grant for students with an interest in the construction and skilled trades, bringing the total representing the college to 35. In addition to the memorable experience it provides for students during their college education, competing also connects them to industry leaders and representatives from 650 participating national corporations, trade associations, businesses and labor unions.
Henrichs said Salt and Cribbs’ examples highlight there is a place for everyone in the skilled and technical trades.
“They came into the program without experience and are already top performers. That speaks volumes about the program and them,” Henrichs said.