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The Journal Gazette

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Tim Kearney helps Sam Backstrom, 17, measure a cabinet during the Indiana SkillsUSA Regional Competition on Saturday at the Fort Wayne Community Schools' Career Academy.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Instructor Chris Roberts, left, and Tyler Hack, who competed as a student, pose for a photo during the Indiana SkillsUSA Regional Competition on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 at the Construction Trades building.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Elias Perez works on laying brick during the Indiana SkillsUSA Regional Competition on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 at the Construction Trades building.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Olivia Smith, 16, works on making a cabinet during the Indiana SkillsUSA Regional Competition on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 at the Construction Trades building.

  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Sam Backstrom, 17, works on making a cabinet during the Indiana SkillsUSA Regional Competition on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019 at the Construction Trades building.

Sunday, February 10, 2019 1:00 am

Competition helps students build careers

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

At a glance

Local schools had the following number of students competing in various categories of the Indiana Region 2 SkillsUSA competition:

Automotive 19
Construction 52
Cosmetology 17
Culinary arts 12
Early childhood 56
Information technology 56
Welding 17

Source: Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts sounds more like a proud father than a high school instructor when he talks about his students' participation in the Indiana SkillsUSA regional competition.

The annual event that presents technical and career education students with a hands-on challenge attracted only two local teens 10 years ago. That was a mere fraction of the program's enrollment of about 65 at the time, Roberts said. 

On Saturday, 52 construction students tackled the challenges set forth by the national organizing body. That's close to half of the 115-student enrollment. Individual trades-related tasks included building a cabinet, laying bricks and installing electrical wiring.

Among the other competition areas were advertising design, cosmetology, commercial baking, advertising design, automotive collision repair and plumbing. About 230 Allen County high school students competed in locations across the city, including the Fort Wayne Community Schools' Career Academy, Ivy Tech Community College Northeast, the University of Saint Francis and the training facility for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 166.

Winners from Saturday's events will go on to the state competition. State winners advance to the national competition. The next step is the world competition, which was held last year in the United Arab Emirates.

“It's my favorite morning of the school year,” Roberts said. “I get up extra early because I'm nervous.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspects of the construction program, where Roberts teaches, are the amount of support it receives from the community.

All the materials used to complete the projects and the prizes offered were donated by local businesses and the program's alumni. Winners received items including hammers, levels, tape measures and Mad Ants tickets.

“I have a list – it's endless,” Roberts said of the donations.

And 15 construction program graduates returned to be judges.

In fact, Roberts estimated 60 to 80 alumni would talk through the building trades classrooms at 125 Murray St., part of Fort Wayne Community Schools' Career Academy, during the competition Saturday morning.

“Some push strollers through with their families, which is unbelievable to me,” he said.

Among those returning graduates who volunteered as judges were Tyler Hack, a Snider High School graduate who judged masonry, and Sam Cook, a Snider grad who judged cabinet making.

Hack, who works for Weigand Construction, is now at work on Columbia City's new, $68 million high school, where his younger sister will be a student.

“I never even knew about bricklaying until I started here,” he said of the FWCS program. “I just liked it because I was good at it. You get to build buildings.”

Hack, who turns 22 on Monday, captured first place in the Masonry Contractors Association of American's World of Concrete competition last month in Las Vegas. He was keeping an eye on whether students built level structures and correctly alternated the bricks.

“There's a lot to it,” he added.

Cook, who owns Network Construction, was evaluating cabinetry students' communication skills, ability to follow a blueprint and adherence to safety guidelines.

“How they perform under the pressure they're under,” he added.

Of course, Cook also looked at quality of the final product.

A student whose work was meticulous but unfinished in the four-hour window would score higher than one who rushed to completion but submitted a sloppy project, he said.

Cook confessed that on the first day of his junior year – the first time he was supposed to report to what was then the Anthis Career Center – he panicked and went to Snider instead.

Although he had signed up to spend his mornings learning a trade, Cook was overwhelmed by nerves. A Snider staff member told Cook he had to go and at least meet the Anthis instructors before changing his schedule.

Within the first two minutes of walking in the building, Cook recalled, he fell in love with the program. He went on to win regional and state SkillsUSA competitions and advanced to the national contest.

“It was definitely the best thing I'd ever done,” he said.

About three hours after the sawdust settled, Andrew Pruser, a senior at Northrop High School, reflected on his second-place finish.

“I thought I did just OK,” he said, adding that he'd built better cabinets in the past. “The pressure really does layer on when you're in the moment.”

Pruser will have another chance to compete. He is one of five cabinet-making students who will advance to the state level.

The 18-year-old is applying to Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he plans to take general education classes. He hopes to transfer to Purdue's main campus in West Lafayette to major in civil engineering.

One thing Pruser knows for sure, his future will include designing and building cabinets – even if it's as a hobby.

“I don't know how good I am at it,” he said, “but I love doing it.”

sslater@jg.net