Fairmont State provides SkillsUSA state competition venue to show off skilled trades

Mar. 23—FAIRMONT — Poca High School student Kayda Legg envisions using the Air Force as a way to pay for a future career as a marine biologist.

The 18-year-old Putnam County resident has already scored an 86 on her AVSAB, the entry test for enlisted personnel. With her mechanical mind, she plans on doing an extra year of school to learn auto repair before entering the Air Force.

However, at the SkillsUSA competition hosted Friday and Saturday by Fairmont State University, Legg got to showcase her more creative side Friday. Competing in the pin design contest, Legg designed a state pin, drawing from the state's official flower, insect and history to symbolize West Virginia.

"I've got a rhododendron, it's got two honeybees on it because the rhododendron is the state flower and our honeybees are actually the state insect, which most people don't know," " she said. "It's got 12 flowers right here, representing that West Virginia is the 12th smallest state population wise. We have 1.7 million people. It's got 63 seeds on there. It represents the year that West Virginia separated from Virginia which was 1863."

Legg's design principle was to connect numbers with meaning in a visual way. She settled on that approach because it's her second year doing SkillsUSA, from her prior experience she knew judges would ask, 'what does this or that mean.'

"I just wanted to give them fuel for something," Legg said. "I also think it's really important to bring awareness to bees and stuff like that because they are going extinct. And I think it's really important to talk about that."

Legg was one of roughly 1,400 students registered for the conference. SkillsUSA focuses on career and technical education, providing students from that academic area a place to shine. Melissa Wilkinson, SkillsUSA state director for West Virginia, coordinated the event. She said the conference teaches students the soft skills they need to succeed in the trades, such as cosmetology, welding, auto body and others.

The annual conference involves schools from around the state. Students, either alone or in teams, compete for gold at the conference. The winners get to advance to the national level conference that takes place in June in Atlanta, Georgia.

Wilkinson said the conference is important because it provides students a place to show off their skills. It also shows West Virginia is developing a workforce for the future. The conference is also important because it can open up opportunities for competitors.

"Business and industry are willing to come down and help judge because they are offering these students apprenticeships — jobs straight off the contest floor," Wilkinson said.

Scott Harper is one such example. He competed in 2010 for electronics technologies, now he judges the competition. He won gold at the state level before graduating high school, and went on to attend WVU where he obtained a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in aerospace engineering. His experience going through SkillsUSA helped him sharpen skills he carried through his academic career. He is now an expert in robotics and even had the opportunity to intern for NASA.

"Competition does bring innovation and this little friendly competition really brings the best out of these young individuals," Harper said. "Also, it opens up a lot of doors, brings a lot of opportunities. Future employers are looking, watching and head hunting these young men and women competing here."

Richwood High School's Baylee Jarrett, 17, is the state officer for SkillsUSA and vice president of region one. She was in charge of overseeing everything, but was also taking part in a job interview competition. She's in a nursing program at her technical education center, and is applying to be a CNA.

Jarrett's particular competition has more in common with Shark Tank than the standard job interview. The interview competition isn't for any specific field, rather it tests competitors on their interview skills. Questions are open ended, opening up the field to various careers. After filling out an application, a receptionist guides students through the rest of the process. Eventually, students are pulled into a 10-minute interview to be judged. It sounds high pressure, but Jarrett is no stranger to being on the spot. She is a pageant competitor, and has parlayed that experience into her interview competition. She plans to go to Potomac State College after graduation to study nursing as both her parents are nurses.

Jarrett appreciates what SkillsUSA does. She said it's an opportunity to sharpen her speaking skills and she feels prepared for the workforce. Despite not having been through nursing school yet, she already has the confidence she'll need to make it through the program.

"SkillsUSA is all about the trades, and it's about preparing America's future skilled workforce," she said. "I think that's amazing, especially in West Virginia, to work to close that skills gap. It's just so important to see all these kids showcase their skills that they've learned throughout the year and it's just really great to see them do what they love."

Reach Esteban at efernandez@timeswv.com